As someone who has been a basketball fan for nearly as long as I can remember, and has been working in higher education for the better part of the past two decades, I see a lot that the latter could learn from the former.
Following the NBA postseason last summer, I couldn’t help but be struck by the stark contrasts between how merit is demonstrated, evaluated, and appreciated in contemporary professional basketball versus how it is constructed in the realm of selective college admissions.
Indeed, the troubling ways in which many wealthy colleges measure merit is what accounts for the fact that CollegeNET’s 2022 Social Mobility Index placed Wesleyan, Connecticut College, UConn, Trinity, Yale, Fairfield, and Quinnipiac among the bottom sixth of 1,414 institutions nationally for facilitating class mobility. Meanwhile, Southern, Western, and Central Connecticut State Universities are all found among the top 5%. It is these latter institutions — our regional comprehensive universities — that educate many more students of ordinary means, and many more students of color.
With the 2023-24 National Basketball Association (NBA) season underway, and the fall college application season upon us, it is a great time to consider a couple important lessons selective colleges and universities could learn from studying trends in the world of professional basketball.
Lesson 1. The pool of available talent is deep, and talent is spread far and wide.
Over the course of my viewing lifetime, I have witnessed professional basketball continually grow while consistently improving in quality. This growth and improvement are inextricably tied together by the thread of talent — that is, the improvement of the product on the court and global growth of the game are directly connected to the expansion of the talent pool.
Just as the NBA of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain was far superior to the segregated NBA of George Mikan, the depth of talent and quality of play in today’s globalized league easily exceeds the one once dominated by Michael Jordan. So, it should come as no surprise that the last five Most Valuable Player award winners have been foreign-born, as were the top five regular season league leaders in player efficiency last year. Meanwhile, the Denver Nuggets captured the first league title in their 47-year franchise history with the scintillating play of a dynamic duo from Serbia and Canada.
The continuing excellence and improvement of the NBA is predicated upon expansive, inclusive efforts at incorporating new talent from new places. Unlike the NBA, selective colleges and universities embrace many methods of limiting the admission of new talent. Notwithstanding the rhetoric of diversity, our elite institutions of higher education pursue protectionism rather than an expansionist, inclusionary approach.
Ironically, in fact, college athletics offers a prime example of such protectionism. Setting aside a large fraction of seats for student athletes, in order to attempt to field competitive teams across a wide swath of country club and pay-to-play sports (just consider participation on youth travel teams) remains legally permissible and publicly applauded. Unsurprisingly, “well-resourced white students receive considerable cumulative benefits from athletics,” the scholars of a recent UCLA Law Review article observe. In other words, this is a practice that ensures a de facto admission quota for predominantly wealthy, white applicants.
When Harvard was forced to release admissions data during the affirmative action lawsuit, we learned that an astounding “43 Percent of White Students Harvard Admits Are Legacies, Jocks, or the Kids of Donors and Faculty.” An econometric investigation into the selection of that large proportion of preferential admits found that about three-quarters of them would have been rejected in the absence of their special advantages. Consequently, the researchers conclude: “Removing preferences for athletes and legacies would significantly alter the racial distribution of admitted students, with the share of white admits falling and all other groups rising or remaining unchanged.”
These days, many selective colleges are also enrolling half or more of their incoming classes with Early Decision (ED) applicants. ED is a binding arrangement that effectively prevents an economically disadvantaged student from comparing and considering competing financial aid offers. Unsurprisingly, ED practices simultaneously suppress the presence of students of color and those of modest means on these campuses.
While NBA teams are seeking to broaden the reach of their talent pipelines, schools with seemingly high rejection rates are simultaneously shrinking the scope of their available talent pools by choosing to fill substantial fractions of their seats through means that reduce competition and further benefit the already advantaged.
Lesson 2. Being capable and qualified is more meaningful than being credentialed.
For a long time, it was argued that aspiring NBA players required NCAA experience to be adequately prepared. Of course, anyone who followed the careers of LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and the late Kobe Bryant, all of whom entered the NBA directly out of high school, must appreciate that not all players need college experience first.
In fact, only two of the first seven players selected in this past summer’s NBA draft even played a single season of traditional college ball — just as many as played professionally in France; two others played for Overtime Elite, the Atlanta-based professional basketball league for teenagers. The lesson here is that who is qualified for an opportunity — and potentially capable of excelling if offered an opportunity — should not be conflated with who possesses specific credentials (e.g., amount of NCAA playing time).
From test scores to extracurricular activities to application essays to teacher and counselor recommendations, nearly every academic indicator purported to reflect student merit is highly correlated with privilege. This is why such large numbers of students at our most selective colleges attended wealthy private secondary schools, despite the fact that the U.S. Department of Education reports an overwhelming 91% of K-12 students in this country are enrolled in public schools. Quite central to the mystique of elite college admissions is the conflation of credentials that are mostly markers of wealth with purported evidence of being qualified and capable.
By reducing merit to particular class-based credentials, postsecondary institutions further perpetrate “education as privilege laundering,” encouraging the accrual of accumulated advantage. Privilege laundering is what transforms wealth into merit, manufacturing the mythology that those in positions of power and privilege are deserving of their wealth and status and opportunities, including seats at elite colleges.
In the end, a focus on contextless numbers also sabotages an organization’s ability to identify talent. Imagine if team scouts had been fixated on how much Kevin Durant could bench press or how many pushups and sit-ups Nikola Jokic could perform? Likewise, an exclusive emphasis on grades and test scores, absent an appreciation of a student’s background, may well result in actually enrolling more low-performing students.
Whatever the respective relevance of higher education and professional sports, about half of Americans follow the NBA, while the most recent Census data indicates that only 37.7% of our country’s age 25 and older population has bachelor’s degrees. I believe the wide appeal of professional basketball says something about its relative success in assembling a high quality product that resonates with the public. NBA teams locate, recruit, and sign great talent from just about everywhere, despite the fact that even the most valuable NBA franchise would not place among the top 20 wealthiest higher education institutions.
Sadly, however, our wealthiest postsecondary institutions often seem least interested in finding and elevating tremendous talent from all walks of life, choosing instead to remain the exclusive domain of “the dream hoarders.” These highly regarded colleges persistently preserve privilege through a host of approaches, thus “being very rich is its own qualification in selective college admissions.”
For those of us who believe that there are enormous reservoirs of untapped human potential in our state and country, and that higher education can occasionally serve to unleash those capacities, how much longer can we continue to defer to the decisions of elite institutions? It may be time for us to look elsewhere, away from the name brand institutions and toward our far more democratic and inclusive “people’s universities,” our regional public colleges and universities.
sourav guha is a member of the Connecticut Mirror Community Editorial Board.