Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Further Thoughts on College Recruiting . . . and Admissions

College coaches zig-zag across the country looking for players for their teams.  Players similarly zig-zag across the country looking for their college campus of choice.  And between them we find a number of recruiting services willing to tell you what they think about any particular player.  Scout.  Rivals.  ESPN.  Any guy with a clipboard and an internet connection can start one.

So here is what I find intriguing about all of this: how accurate are these services?  How accurately can these recruiting outfits prognosticate whether a high school player will become a college star or bust?  For all the angst and energy that college fans now spend on national signing day, this would appear to be the only question worth asking.  The answer should not surprise anyone. 

The rankings are not fool-proof.  For every top recruit awarded five stars by a recruiting service one finds a recruit awarded two or three stars who goes on to great fame and fortune.  This is not an exact science.  Making matters worse according to Andy Staples, these grades have a chicken-egg quality to them.  Players with high grades are recruited by the big schools, but are these grades due to the fact that these big schools are pursuing the player, or the other way around?  Further, are these grades reflective of how many fans from a given school buy the particular magazine doing the ranking?

Consider two cases in particular.  One is the case of Denard Robinson, Heisman Trophy candidate and reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.  He is the quarterback for the University of Michigan and one of the most electrifying players in college football.  He was a four star recruit by the major recruiting services.  This would appear to bode well for the services, but for one problem: they projected him as an "athlete," not a quarterback, or as a defensive back.  Neither service thought he would play quarterback at the college level.  Big whiff.

The second example is the case of Clay Matthews, Jr., a high school linebacker with zero stars on his resume.  This was all the more shocking given his lineage: his dad, Clay Matthews, was an All-America linebacker at 
the University of Souther California, and his uncle, Bruce Matthews, was also a star there.  Clay, Jr., had to walk-on at USC (So much for legacy scholarships).  He played well and was ultimately awarded a scholarship.  Five years later, he was drafted in the first round of the NFL draft.  

I am not all that interested in the circus that college recruiting has become, at least as a pure question of athletics.  I am interested in the recruiting circus for the many public lessons it teaches us about college admissions and debates over the concept of merit.  The debates is quite simplistic and reductionist: college admissions must be based only on high school grades and SAT scores.  Nothing else matters.

This raises two questions.  The first question is quite obvious.  Standing alone, how accurate are these two markers of achievement?  How can we trust that these two pieces of information can provide us all the information we need when deciding the composition of our incoming classes?

The second question should be similarly obvious: the way a football coach can decide for himself what is best for his team on any given year, shouldn't we grant admissions officials the same amount of discretion when it comes to the student body as a whole?  This question is important for two reasons.  First, if we assume that merit is an amorphous and contested concept, why impose a definition on admissions officials?  Why not allow them, like coaches and recruiters in general, much needed flexibility to use their discretion and expertise as they see fit?  

And second, as in football, where the purpose of recruiting is to win football games, we ought to have a frank conversation about the purposes of the university.  Implicit in the admissions debate is the notion that the university serves to reward past achievement and nothing more.  This is why high achievement is defined as a high grade point average and a high SAT score, and unfairness is simplistically located when we find any one person admitted with lower scores than one who was denied admission.  But the process is far more complicated than that.  The purpose of the university is far more nuanced than that.  

These two points converge on a third: note how simplistic notions of merit give way to a wholistic approach when it comes to college recruiting.  I wonder, in other words, whether critics of affirmative action are fans of college football.  When it comes to stocking their football programs with elite prospects, I can only wonder why they do not spend the same amount of energy fighting for their idiosyncratic notions of justice.

Call me cynical, but I suspect that wins and losses might have something to do with it.

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