More than the rest of the world, the U.S. educational system focuses almost exclusively on college diplomas. When the percentage of college graduates in the American workforce began to lag behind other developed countries, it was treated as a national crisis. President Barack Obama launched the American Graduation Initiative early in his term, vowing to improve the statistic by 2020.
Vocational and technical educations, which start tracking students as teenagers, have traditionally been viewed as an anti-meritocratic betrayal of the American Dream. Such programs, despite their effectiveness, have struggled to keep their funding in the midst of economic downturn.
There is no better example of this phenomenon than the world of athletics, where amateur athletes in the U.S. are separated from the professional ranks and forced to stay in school long after their contemporaries abroad atain a salary. It is a system that is bad for the athletes, sports, and schools themselves.
In Europe, the top club soccer teams begin evaluating players before they reach puberty. FC Barcelona’s famed soccer academy, La Cantera, houses, trains, and educates over a hundred teenagers. In the Dominican Republic, MLB teams sign 16-year-olds and house them in state-of-the-art academies, where they earn a living wage and learn the sport. Recently, the Texas Rangers gave two 16-year-old Dominicans signing bonuses worth a combined $8.45 million dollars.
Contrast that with the U.S. system, where NBA teams are forbidden to even scout players before their high school graduation, and aspiring football players have to spend at least three years in college before they can receive any monetary compensation. American baseball players are automatically entered into the MLB Draft at 18, without ever being given the chance to enter the free market so teams can bid for their skills.
The rationale is that even the most talented young players only have a slim chance of scaling the pyramidal distribution of athletic talent to become professionals. If we did not make them focus on their educations first, what would their backup plans be?
The absence of pro teams in American youth development creates a vacuum, often filled with unsavory middle-men trying to make a quick buck instead of looking out for young players. Almost every American-born NBA player in the last generation learned the game in the AAU circuit as teenagers, playing hundreds of poorly coached and unregulated games each summer, relying on raw athletic ability instead of developing the skills they will need at the next level.
Elite basketball players, by virtue of their height, are easy to spot by the time they reach adolescence. They become lottery tickets in their communities, with everyone around them looking to cash in, something that can be disastrous for both their games and attitudes.
Unlike baseball players, who are at least given the chance to become professionals after high school, basketball and football players are forced to go through the charade of becoming "student-athletes" at four-year colleges. Their high school GPAs and SAT scores are almost always lower than that of the general student population, and many are shuffled into majors like "Recreation Studies" that do little to challenge them academically or prepare them for the workforce. The abysmal 31% graduation rate of the national champion UConn Huskies is hardly an aberration in the world of men’s college basketball.
Nor is this system all that beneficial to the colleges, as the vast majority of D-I athletic programs do not turn a profit. Most are trying to follow the path of Georgetown in the 1980s — a regional Catholic school that leveraged a dominant basketball program to nationwide fame. But, athletic success is an inherently zero-sum game, and the end result is a spiraling arms race that benefits no one.
Instead of schools seeing themselves as educators working together to solve the huge problems facing U.S. higher education — poor graduation rates and alumni with huge student loans for educations that are being increasingly questioned — the athletic model encourages them to view each other as competitors, locked in a bitter struggle to attract the best students, improve their prestige, and rise in the U.S. News and World Report rankings.
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