Opinion | Columns

‘Deserving’ can’t be defined

With only one week of classes left, we have plenty to give thanks for: health, happiness, and the nearing winter break. But just after a national holiday where we’re meant to give thanks (and then, apparently, buy everything we can grab at a Black Friday sale), perhaps it’s time to remember how thankful we should be just to be here.

Even as an ambivalent football fan at best, I’ve followed the drama unfolding around our football team and its performance. I have no idea whether it’s the right decision to fire head coach Pete Mangurian or Athletic Director M. Dianne Murphy. I’ll leave that to the people who know anything about the sport (or actually have control over the coaches’ employment status). That isn’t really what I want to write.

Looking through the hundreds of comments on the op-eds and sports articles, many commenters boil down the athlete issue to one simple conclusion: We (non-athletes) deserve to be here, and they (athletes) don’t—they circumvented the admissions process, and we didn’t.

It’s not an uncommon argument. Roughly 20 percent of the entering class at Ivy League universities is recruited athletes. In an article for the Huffington Post, Columbia professor and former provost Jonathan Cole said that in the most high-profile sports at Ivy League schools, “coaches’ picks” can have scores over 100 points lower than the class average, but enjoy a 30 percent advantage getting in over non-athletes. In an analysis by the New York Times in 2011, the Academic Index used by the Ivy League translates to around a minimum 3.0 GPA and 1140 score on math and critical reading—though few non-athletes are ever admitted at that level.

And yes, as a non-athlete, those statistics are extremely frustrating. While waiting on pins and needles to hear back on an early decision application, it’s insanely frustrating to watch a classmate get a “likely admit” letter months early. 

But with four years of stewing behind me, I’ve seen that maybe it’s time to get over it and stop assuming that I have any more right to be here than anyone else. What did any of us do to deserve to be here? High SAT scores? High GPAs?

Just as there are statistics on preferential admissions to athletes, there are countless years of studies on how SAT scores correlate to wealth: the wealthier a student’s family, the higher the score. These families can afford to get extra tutoring for their kids; an article in New York Magazine gave an example of an SAT tutor in Manhattan who earned $22,000 per child per year.

But perhaps Manhattan is the extreme. In my case, I had the good fortune to attend a private school in Cleveland that few of you will have heard of, where our college counselors gave out 30-page questionnaires to gauge where we should apply, held weekly consultations, and created detailed (but anonymous) charts on the performance of past students who’d been admitted. Heck, let’s start with this: My high school had counselors specifically for college admissions.

Certainly economic disparity isn’t comparable to athletic prowess. But before we start picking apart who doesn’t deserve to be here, maybe it’s worth considering what the parameters of merit are. With a 6.89 percent admission rate, can any of us honestly say that we deserve to be here—even taking athletes out of the question? Should any of us really believe that all of the qualifications and scores make us more deserving than the more than 30,000 rejected applicants?

What’s sad about that sort of cut-and-dried analysis—the division between deserving or not—is that it’s such unabashed self-praise. Rather than acknowledging the set of circumstances that brings any student to Columbia, it assumes that “deserving” can be defined.

There is a legitimate discussion to be had about athletics and recruitment at Columbia—the amount of money spent on the process, transparency about the strange Academic Index, and obviously, as the past month has demonstrated, performance. 

But when it comes to the debate on merit, perhaps it’s best to just be grateful to have been accepted and think a little more critically on how it came about.

Abby Mitchell is a Columbia College senior majoring in comparative literature and society. She is a former arts and entertainment editor for Spectator. Life’s a Mitch runs alternate Tuesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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c'mon posted on

I find it hard to comprehend the amount of gratuitously bilious energy spent on disparaging our fellow students who just happen to be on a sports team. Maybe it's a convenient but base way to vent frustration, stress or express righteous indignation... whatever the prime cause, I suspect it's worth getting it out of your system before you hit the real world.

If we could just harness the indignation of non-athletes regarding the supposed perquisites of being an Ivy League student-athlete or how they unfairly appropriated an entitled applicant's spot at Columbia, there would be no use for fossil fuel.

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Alum posted on

I find this article more than a little disturbing. To think that you are better and more deserving than other students does not say much about you as a person. If this attitude is widespread at Columbia, then it does not say anything good about the undergraduate colleges. Interestingly, students at other ivies and Stanford celebrate their classmates.

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Anonymous posted on

I have no idea when you graduated, or what utopian vision you cherish of other ivies and Stanford, but this isn't a Columbia specific problem. It's what happens under hyper-competitive admissions conditions where the percent of students rejected is the measure of a University.

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You voted '-1'.
Anonymous posted on

No, this actually is a Columbia problem. This does not go on at HYPS.

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Uptown posted on

You are missing the point. She is not saying she is better. On the contrary, she is saying that it is time to stop trying to determine who is deserving and who is not.

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Steele Sternberg posted on

Sounds like someone is taking Lehecka's Am. Studies class. Right on. Perhaps what someone does to 'earn' their place at institutions like this has less to do with their work in high school and more to do with the kinds of contributions they can muster together within their four years within the university?

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Anonymous posted on

...because that kind of interpretation is totally relevant to a discussion of admissions and recruitment?

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Anonymous posted on

First of all: SATs and GPAs aren't the only criteria used in choosing who is admitted or not. Extracurricular activities also count. A lot. Sportsmanship is a very important extracurricular activity, which some pursue at college, and some don't. And yes, athletes are expected to stand up to expectations, both in sports and academia, and many of them do. It would also be interesting to see how they perform after college in comparison with non-athelets.

In any case I think you wrote a great essay Abby. Studying at Columbia is a privilege to be thankful about; athlete or non-athelete. Not something to brag about.

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