What Students Are Worth

Jack Turnage's article about collegiate athletes was all over my Facebook feed last week. It made the rounds of my classmates, most of whom were less than thrilled by the piece -- for multiple reasons. First there was the implication that seventeen Ivy League-educated, world-class athletes competing in the London 2012 Olympics are little more than a bunch of dumb jocks. Then there was the suggestion that recruited athletes are undeserving of a Princeton education. Not to mention the broad claim that students and parents nationwide are willing -- or even eager -- to "sacrifice academic achievement and growth to get into a good college." My peers commented that the piece "reeks of entitlement." They found it "offensive," "ignorant" and "whiny." I agreed.

I kept coming back to the article, trying to figure out what it was that most rubbed me the wrong way. I think it was the underlying assumption that people who don't have high grades do not deserve to be admitted to a school like Princeton -- and that such students take something away from the other students in attendance there. The claim that Princeton athletes have lower grades than everyone else is also problematic given Turnage's lack of data, but secondary to this particular piece of reasoning about who deserves what.

I'm pretty sure that the top schools in the country could fill their classes several times over with high school seniors boasting 4.0s and 2400s -- but they don't. Probably because if good grades are the only thing you bring to the table, you're not going to be anyone's preferred dinner guest. And if college were a straight-up meritocracy, where would there be space for the kids who didn't have supportive parents, attentive teachers, and test prep courses? If someone struggles academically in high school, does that mean they won't be an important member of a college community? Does it mean they don't deserve a particular kind of education? Is it wasted on them?

I, too, am athletically unexceptional (to put it lightly). I always have been, and I always will be. But I don't resent recruited athletes, nor do I immediately assume they are going to be less intelligent than the general student population. Approximately 20 percent of Princeton's undergraduates are student-athletes. Within such a huge chunk of the student body, there is going to be a huge variety in academic achievement, sporting prowess, community engagement, social involvement and the many other things that make up someone's college experience.

In my experience, college students very rarely have just one thing going for them. You're never going to be just an athlete, an artist, a writer, a lab scientist or a mathematician. You are going to be engaged in other things, hanging out with other people and pursuing other interests. You could be pre-med and on the football team; you could be a physics major who drops out. You are more than what you do, and that's what makes you interesting.

So, Jack -- I'm sorry that you don't think recruited athletes are on your level or worth your time. I probably wouldn't be either, if you took my GPA to be representative of my intelligence. I am even sorrier that you think recruited athletes or other admitted students with less-than-perfect grades are ruining the American educational system. That's a big claim. I, for one, consider myself lucky to have known all the students I did during my four years in the orange bubble -- athletes or not, SAT scores, GPAs, warts and all. They were worth Princeton's time, and they were worth mine.