Why America’s Obsession with “the Best” is Destroying Higher Education

Animal behaviorists and psychologists tell us that athletic competitions are symbolic warfare. In a simplistic parallel, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees (substitute the name of your favorite teams as you wish) are today what Athens and Sparta were in ancient Greece, or Venice and Genoa were in the Renaissance, or any number of Central and South American city-states were in the years before colonization by Europeans. Sports teams are tribal identifiers, uniting their “fans” (allegedly an abbreviation of “fanatic”) into an “army.” Members of the “army” often display their support by wearing the team’s colors or portions of their uniforms, thereby providing easy visual confirmation of their partisanship.

On one level, identifying with a team is a harmless outlet for the need to belong to something or to identify with like-minded individuals on a particular subject, and most people are able to keep their passion for their team within socially acceptable bounds.

But perhaps because modern technology has made watching an athletic competition at a distance (via television or online streaming) so easy and available, sports have become ever more integrated into our lives. Indeed, based on television viewership, sporting events are now our preferred form of entertainment. It may well be the case that at no time in human history have sports competitions been as socially significant as they are today.

The problem is that the rules and objectives of sports are easily applied to other areas of social endeavor where they don’t belong. In sports, the point of competition, especially in current times, is not merely to compete; it is to win. We want to know which team is “the best,” and we create “playoffs” or “title matches” or “championships” to settle the question of who or what is “the best.” Huge numbers of people are glued to their various media outlets for major championships; enormous amounts of money are wagered on the outcomes; coverage of the big games is so ubiquitous that those not interested find it difficult to identify someone with whom to have a conversation on any other topic.

Regrettably, this obsession with “the best” is undermining higher education in three distinct ways.

First, a great deal of money is spent by colleges on their athletics programs, and that money is therefore unavailable to support academics or other more central functions of the college. It is not unusual to find a basketball or football coach who is, by five or more times, the most highly compensated university employee. Yet it is rare that an athletics program generates enough revenue to pay for its operating budget (let alone the capital costs of arenas and stadiums). In fact, fewer than two dozen universities make a profit on athletics, and it is common that a university in Division 1 will divert several tens of millions of dollars annually from its general operating budget into the athletic budget to make up the difference between revenue and expenses.

Why are universities so often besotted by their athletics programs?

The most common answer is to build school spirit, by which they mean to create a campus climate that will induce students to enroll and alumni to donate — but that only happens if they have winning teams. Of course, they can’t all be “the best” at the national level — by definition there is only one of those — but they can potentially win their conference, and perhaps be selected for post conference play, and (depending on the sport) even be on national television. Or they can go broke trying to reach that level of distinction. We might wish that some of these schools would show similar commitment to enhancing the quality of their educational programs.

In sum, college athletics generally contributes significantly to the overall cost of running the university, and therefore also contributes disproportionately to the rapidly rising costs of tuition and fees, but with no demonstrable educational benefit to the students.

Second, college sports teams are now being used as proxies for the institutions themselves. “Our football team won the national championship;” ergo, we are “the best” in the classroom as well. That reasoning is completely ridiculous, but easily exemplified: the University of Alabama, long a powerhouse in football but not historically highly regarded for its academics (U.S. News & World Report currently ranks it the 110th best national university) has nonetheless parlayed its football success into an expansion of its enrollment. Over the past decade it has grown its undergraduate student body by nearly 13,000 students, almost all of whom are from out-of-state, for a total of well over 16,000 students who are not from Alabama. Even though it discounts these students by a collective $100 million, the University of Alabama still nets more than twice as much tuition money per student from each out-of-state student as it does for each in-state student — so this program has been a huge financial success.

The irony, of course, is that the success of the football program has utterly nothing to do with the quality of the academic program. But our obsession with sports, and especially with winning, creates a visceral desire to be associated with “the best,” even if the reference is to a sports team and not the university itself.

Third, the ranking of sports teams has carried over to the ranking of institutions — not on the basis of wins and losses, obviously, but in an effort to determine “quality” (a synonym for “the best.”) It’s easy enough to construct a method of deciding the best football or basketball team (although the methods themselves are often subject to intense criticism, especially if the method chosen appears to put your team at a disadvantage). But what are the metrics that properly determine institutional quality? Universities are not sports teams; they do many things and serve many purposes. How do you construct a fair and objective set of metrics by which to measure educational quality?

The quick answer is that you do not, because there is almost no agreement on what the primary role of college should be, let alone how to measure how well it is doing. If graduation rates are what counts, colleges will preferentially select the academically strongest high school seniors they can find, and that will mean an overwhelming number of students from relatively affluent, mostly college-educated, families. First generation and/or low-income students will be passed over and left behind — not a desirable outcome for a society that claims to believe in meritocracy and the opportunity for social mobility.

The same kind of unintended consequence will befall almost any criterion you might choose.

Accordingly, the default criterion becomes how famous the college is, which is often a surrogate for how much press coverage its sports teams generate, or how large an endowment it has — and the size of the endowment is also generally related to its age (since endowments grow larger with the passage of time, those colleges that have been around the longest are advantaged). Most such schools are a few of the flagship public universities, or private colleges that have served generations of the American aristocracy, who have been both loyal and generous.

But this line of reasoning leads us to the huge problem we face today.

Too many prospective students believe that their long-term success hinges on whether they are admitted to “the best” college or university, although (frustratingly for these overachievers) the identity of the “best” university varies, depending on who or what is doing the ranking. “Best” can also vary from year to year. For example, over the past 20 years, U.S. News has annually named either Harvard or Princeton the best national university; the California Institute of Technology broke through to occupy that spot once, in 2000. While a given student may well have a preference, presumably not too many applicants would become despondent because they were admitted to Harvard but not Princeton (or vice versa).

Yet the fact that there is more than one “best” university (meaning that there are several institutions widely regarded as top universities) does not equate to satisfying the demand from well-qualified students seeking admission to “the best.” Lost in the stampede of prospective students seeking an instantly recognizable name to decorate their diplomas is the critical point that the real “best” campus is not necessarily the most famous, but the one that best serves the particular student’s interests. Unfortunately, our collective obsession with “winners” and “the best” drives the decision of college choice completely in the wrong direction.

There is no easy solution to this dilemma. As long as prospective students (and their families) remain obsessed about gaining entry to one of the handful of very highly ranked colleges and universities, we will continue to read stories of hard-working and conscientious students being denied entry to the college of their choice, and the heartbreak and sense of failure that results from that denial. We will read of the unfairness when a high-achieving, low-income student, without any resources or support system, misses out because a student from an affluent family, with ready access to tutors, private counselors and summer enrichment programs, was offered admission instead.

It’s like the problem a professional sports team based in a city of moderate size (and limited budget) has in competing with a big city team for the best players — and I use that particular analogy because it reinforces my contention that we have become used to thinking about so much of what happens in our society from the standpoint of how sports are structured. The best players want to play for the best teams, and the best teams are usually those with the biggest budgets. Top students want to attend top universities, and top universities are those with the most recognizable names.

The reality is that the prestige of the school has little to do with the long-term success of the individual student. A diploma from a famous school may help in getting a first job, but very quickly career success will depend on the attributes of the individual, not on the name of the school on the diploma. And many students feel out-of-place at so-called “best” schools, where everyone is an academic superstar, and many of them are rich as well.

As long as we have 20 times more students trying to fit into a place like Harvard (and that’s the actual ratio of applicants to admits), we can be sure that the great majority of them will face disappointment — even despair. Inasmuch as Harvard will never choose to grow in order to meet the demand of rising numbers of applicants, it’s time to change the narrative. Parents and high school counselors need to assure high school seniors that they will not be seen as failures should they attend anything less than the “best” university. College admission is not the equivalent of winning the 100-meter dash. College admission is the start, not the end, of the race — and that start can happen at any college or university.

Take a deep breath, prospective freshmen.You are not failures at the age of 18 because you were not offered admission to an Ivy League school. Focus instead on enjoying the education you will receive at the college that accepted you.

In the long run, you’ll be just fine.