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Athletics v. Academics in Higher Education

At a time when a bachelor's degree is considered indispensable for a successful future, it's troubling to read about the dark side of a college "education." The latest example is Coastal Carolina University located near Myrtle Beach, S.C.

In a detailed article, the New York Times explained how David DeCenzo, the school's president, embarked on a risky program to make Coastal Carolina a brand name ("Coastal Carolina Struggles on Way to Tournament," Feb. 25). But instead of academics, he chose athletics to do so.

That was his first mistake. There are already far too many colleges and universities that shortchange students by exploiting their talent outside the classroom. At the end of their four years - if, in fact, they last that long - they are left with a degree that is virtually worthless. You would think that DeCenzo would have learned that lesson.

DeCenzo's second mistake was to hire Cliff Ellis as coach, even though his programs at Clemson and Auburn had been found guilty of major N.C.A.A. infractions, and placed on two years' probation. These cases involved grade-fixing, illicit payments to recruits, and improper dealings with an agent.

It's hard to understand DeCenzo's thinking. If he genuinely wanted to build a reputation for Coastal Carolina, why didn't he make his first order of business recruiting star professors? After all, academics is supposed to be the reason for college. But once he decided to place his bet on athletics, DeCenzo could have at least searched for a coach without the baggage that Ellis brought with him.

The story only goes downhill after that. Determined to build the school's basketball program, Ellis recruited more players last spring than the 13 scholarship slots the N.C.A.A. allows. Realizing his mistake, he used a lame excuse to revoke the scholarship of one of the players, who then lodged a formal complaint with the school alleging that his teammates had received illegal benefits. Nevertheless, a Coastal Carolina trustee said: "From everything I know, he runs a totally clean program. We've been blessed at Coastal to have him as our coach."

No matter how the case plays out, it serves as a cautionary tale for other colleges and universities that harbor similar ambitions. But I seriously doubt that anything substantial will change. Higher education in this country is becoming increasingly commercialized. In a book review published in The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 22, 2010, Mark Bauerlein of Emory University wrote that "college sports bring millions of dollars into university coffers and are increasingly dominating campus life" (" 'The Ivory Tower' - Who Does He Play For?").

Bauerlein cites the example of obscure Adrian College in Michigan, which started building a $6.5 million stadium in 2005. Within 18 months, freshmen applications more than doubled, which translated into greater selectivity of the incoming freshman class. In the annual U.S. News & World Report issue, selectivity, coupled with yield, play an inordinate role in rankings.

As the cost of a sheepskin steadily rises, you'd think that high school seniors would be more concerned with what takes place in the lecture halls than with what takes place on the athletic field. But that's not how so many of them make their decisions. That's a mistake they'll regret down the line.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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