Do Notre Dame Football Graduation Rates Prove the Value of Non-cognitive Variables in College Admission?

A recent article in USA Today lauded the ways in which Notre Dame football is Number 1 in graduation rates of its players. And of course, they’re now Number 1 in the AP Poll and BCS rankings for College Football, too, a rare accomplishment that seems to make the always-proud alumni base even more sanctimonious than usual. (Note: This link will be obsolete as games are played.  Here’s a screenshot of it as of November 28, 2012.)

But this is not about those people who allow cult-like pride and slavish devotion to a non-existent ideal to interfere with reality. And it’s not really about Notre Dame, either. It’s more about selective college admissions, graduation rates, and what “admissions standards” really mean.

It’s widely acknowledgedeven by people within an institution–that the academic profile of athletes as we traditionally measure such things is lower than that of the non-athletes in the freshman class. It’s true everywhere.  No news here.

But does it seem at all odd to you? If a highly selective institution (and I include the likes of Northwestern, Stanford, Duke, and other places that combine big-time athletics with high levels of selectivity and the accompanying graduation rates) publicly opine (either overtly in their words or covertly in their actions) that only the best students as measured by SAT and GPA can succeed, how is it possible that so many students who are at least one–or maybe two–standard deviations below the mean manage to do so well? And, you might ask, how can they manage to do so well while committing to what must be the equivalent of a 40-hour work week?  Conversely, if many of the low-income students who don’t measure up on traditional measures promised to spend an extra 40 hours per week studying, could they graduate too? (Many of the most selective places in the country don’t admit poor students, largely, I believe because poor students usually score lower on the SAT or ACT.)

It’s true, of course, that we don’t see final GPA’s of the athletic students (I’ve never liked the term “student athletes”), so maybe this is where the disparity comes into play. But assuming that graduation is the real threshold, one of several possibilities might occur to more cynical readers:

  • Support services for athletes are extraordinary
  • Someone else is doing the work
  • Athletes take easy classes sanctioned by the university
  • The university is really not as rigorous as it claims, and anyone could graduate

But being the cheerful optimist that I am, something else has occurred to me:

What if the thing that really gets you through college and through life is not just intelligence in the way we traditionally measure it? What if it has to do with things like leadership, drive, determination, motivation, goal setting, moral support, and dozens of other non-cognitive things we can’t even describe?  What if that intangible “it’ that admissions officers see that makes them take a risk on a candidate means a lot more than we give it credit for?  It’s almost like Bill Sedlacek was right.

That’s what I’ve come to believe. Academic intelligence and cognitive ability are important, of course. But if you believe Al Maguire’s “The world is run by C-students,” or Woody Allen’s “Eighty percent of life is just showing up,” you begin to wonder whether any long-held belief about the way we do college admissions is meaningful.

I’ve been called an instigator. It’s also been said I love to stir the pot. Tell me what you think.

2 thoughts on “Do Notre Dame Football Graduation Rates Prove the Value of Non-cognitive Variables in College Admission?

  1. Jon, this is very interesting, and along the lines of what I have noticed as a college counselor. The three traits in students that I’ve found most often spell future success in college are being able to accept constructive criticism, a willingness to keep trying even when the going is tough, and humbleness. By humbleness I mean that they don’t assume they are the most important or most talented person that ever walked the planet; they know that there will always be someone more talented and it motivates them to always keep trying to improve. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that many of the best h.s. athletes share these traits. I’ve witnessed “C” and “B” students with these characteristics go on to do great things, and “A” students without these traits be shocked by the cold reality of the real world when they land in college.


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