Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Let's Think About This

I wasn’t close to being the valedictorian at my high school graduation, but I pulled down fairly good grades and went on to a reputable university to earn a BA. (I could have said Bachelor of Arts, but it sounds funnier to say BA.) While in high school, my grades and other school-related activities were not a big enough deal to warrant a scholarship from a college, state or federal agency, or civic group. Not that it was by design, but I pretty much flew under the radar with the aforementioned entities. (It might have even come as a bit of a surprise to my college when I graduated: "Who’s Grant Greene? Did he really earn a BA from this institution?")

Scholarships are a funny thing. When I think of the word "scholar" I think of some old cat with shock-white hair and a cheesy mustache wearing a tweed sportcoat with leather patches on the elbows being asked by the PBS series Nova why ladybugs have such dreadful manners. And yet, we give scholarships to individuals who’ve shown they’re really good at playing something. Granted, not everyone can "read" a blitz or fully understand the mechanics behind a home-run swing. But I certainly don’t foresee a group of executives gathered around a conference table when the head of the group turns to the hulking mass of a man to his right and says, "Blutarski, you were a full-ride defensive lineman for Notre Dame, and I’m not even sure if you graduated. But what the heck, why don’t we leave it up to you to decide what percentage of mezzanine debt we want to include in this deal?"

I have no illusions as to the reason colleges offer these incentives to athletes: making money for the school! This may lead you to ask, then, "If making money is the motivation behind the giving of scholarships, then how do you explain their giving them for sports like archery and platform diving?" It’s a fair question, but I don’t have a clue as to the reason. (When’s the last time you saw a packed house at a badminton tournament?) To the extent that I believe calling these incentives "scholarships" is somewhat demeaning to the educational process, I’m all for keeping college sports (read: football and basketball) alive and well because they do make a boatload of cash for the schools.

Quite honestly, it would make more sense to recruit athletes as faculty members rather than as students. In the lion’s share of my college courses, the class was taught by a grad student while the professor was off writing a book in the name of the university. Athletes could "represent" the school in much the same way. Instead of writing books, they could, perhaps, be rewriting the record books with the most touchdowns or three-point shots in a regular season – all in the school’s name. Everybody wins: the school makes the money off of the sport, the athletes don’t have to bother with that pesky Algebra homework, the students get a first-rate team to root for, the boosters can stop skulking around in the dark shadows with the keys to a new SUV, and the IRS knows who’s getting paid what.

On the actual scholastic side of things, the awarding of scholarships to the extremely intelligent also seems to fly in the face of reason. Universities whose yearly tuition, per student, rivals the GNP of most third-world countries are courting the Übergeniuses to come to their school for free. First of all, the universities are complete morons for turning away a paying customer in favor of a really smart freeloader. Secondly, if these kids are so smart, is sitting in a room designed by the same person who did the local women’s penitentiary and listening to an octogenarian who’s spent his entire life ensconced within the campus confines really going to make them smarter? Heck, most of these kids have already built their own nuclear particle accelerator or they’re destined to invent the next Google – school’s not going to get them any farther.

What’s the colleges’ motivation? Are they looking to be named "School with the Most Brainiacs" by Smart People Magazine? That would look good on the university letterhead, sure, and it might even get a bachelor dean more dates, but what else are they looking to get out of it? Plus, it’s really sort of lazy for the colleges to recruit the really smart kids. Isn’t that a big part of the reason colleges exist? To show that they can help improve the mind? And unlike sports, there’s no television market or spectator draw (read: money) for filling your ranks with the educational Wunderkind. "Hey, Steve, flip it over to PBS. I want to watch the smart kids at Stanford outthink Harvard. They’re the underdogs, but I like the odds."

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