Jumping through hoops

Alan Ryan on the US academy's annual lotteries, both scholarly and athletic

April 1, 2010

The final fortnight of March sees the outbreak of "March madness". It's when the top 64 college basketball teams battle it out, and newspapers, radio and TV are full of reports - on the games certainly, but also on coaches, heroic players, feckless institutions and the usual dramas involving guns, drugs and money.

Foreigners are bewildered to hear their otherwise rational colleagues obsess over "brackets", and to see them despair as their tickets to the office sweepstake become worthless. "Brackets" - if anyone needs to know - is all about trying to predict how the 64 teams that start off as four regional groups of 16 will be whittled down to the "sweet 16", the "elite eight", the "final four", and finally, to the team that will triumph on 3 April. The pleasure is less about making 50 bucks in the office sweepstake than in watching lower-ranked teams putting the fear of God into their betters and even on occasion humiliating them in the early rounds. This year the favourites, the University of Kansas Jayhawks, were sent packing in the first week.

There are more March madnesses than one, of course, and there is year-round madness in the world of college athletics. The end of March is also when universities and colleges make offers of admission to both undergraduates and graduates. Undergraduates will have applied to half-a-dozen universities - usually two they hanker after, two they think they have a good chance at, and two "safeties" where it is inconceivable they won't be taken. When they get their envelopes from the admissions offices a thin one is cause for despair, since it means "sorry", whereas a plump envelope means they want you, and have sent a pile of material to fill in if you want to come.

As usual, the maddest aspects of US academic life are all about athletics, and at places with big, prestigious programmes in football and basketball, star players have been recruited throughout the year; they aren't waiting for envelopes, but for promises of cars, an easy academic ride and entry to professional sports teams thereafter.

Unlike the top UK universities, even the very best Ivy League schools are turned down by up to 40 per cent of the students they've accepted; for institutions heavily dependent on tuition fees, getting enough students to say yes is as big an issue as it is for some UK institutions during clearing.

The Ivy League simply hands out astonishingly generous financial support on the basis of financial need; children from families making less than about $75,000 (£50,500) get the whole freight for nothing: tuition, board and lodging, books and travel. And the universities have a good idea who will say yes. They also have an agreement that they won't compete for students by offering them better financial terms; elsewhere, however, a good deal of haggling takes place, and the "sticker price" - which at many private colleges is above $50,000 a year for tuition, room and board - is greatly reduced in practice, sometimes on the basis of need but often according to how much the college or university wants you, whether it is to improve its football team, or its record on diversity, or less probably to lend solidity to the woodwind section in the college orchestra.

Faculty play little role in luring the new undergraduate class to campus; in my previous decade at Princeton, I was asked to talk to the family of only one potential student. Not coincidentally, the request came from the development office rather than the admissions office. My attitude towards the American practice of favouring the children of alumni and folk who may in due course give the university a great deal of money didn't much alter over the years. I always thought it was wicked, and wished that universities that could have selected an academically extraordinary cohort would do it, and pay no heed to anything else.

To the extent I changed my mind, it was the effect of watching the way in which public universities such as UCLA were induced to take the thick children of Californian politicians and their friends. If undergraduate education wasn't going to be about getting the brightest kids and making them work their butts off, there seemed no reason why birth and wealth should be excluded if athletic ability and skin colour weren't: inner-city minority children are vastly more likely than their bright but "ordinary" white middle-class peers to be offered places at Ivy League universities.

Madness is less visible in graduate school. That is entirely in the hands of the faculty, and in highly competitive universities it is taken with great seriousness. With 25 applicants for every graduate place, and all the applicants being close to the top of their undergraduate classes, it poses all the problems of Oxbridge undergraduate admissions - how do you make reliable but very fine distinctions between students who are all said to be as good as it gets?

Even when you get the answers right, you aren't done, because half-a-dozen other places are in competition for the students you most want, and while everyone else is watching the basketball on TV you spend the last two weeks in March cajoling, seducing, entreating and begging your new admits to favour you with their presence. Is it worth it? Absolutely. There is no greater pleasure than seeing students turn into the teachers and researchers you hoped they'd become.

Not, of course, that they will make the money that top footballers and basketball players will make in later life. And if they return to a university to coach, the money paid to athletics coaches make the million-dollar salaries of many university presidents look like small change. That is one of the greater year-round madnesses of US higher education. And like many of the other lunacies of college athletics, almost certainly incurable.

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