At Harvard, these athletes tend to come from high-income families. According to a Harvard Crimson survey, families of recruited athletes are twice as likely as non-recruits to come from families earning more than $500,000 than from families earning less than $80,000. Recruited athletes are also slightly whiter—and slightly less Asian American—than legacy admits or donors’ children, according to data gathered for the Arcidiacono paper. In fact, recruited athletes at Harvard are almost twice as likely to be white, and one-third as likely to be Asian, as all non-ALDC admits.
If these numbers make it sound like Harvard’s—and the Ivy League’s—fancy-sport recruitment strategy is a shell game for maximizing the population of rich students who will pay the full ticket price of admission, Paul Tough would agree. The author of an excellent new book on college, The Years That Matter Most, Tough explains that the affluent-athlete hustle is widespread in higher education, especially at smaller schools struggling to stay afloat.
Tough takes a particularly close look at Trinity College. Like Harvard, Trinity doesn’t offer athletic scholarships. But its coaches similarly have influence over the admissions process. Each fall, Trinity’s athletic department provides the admissions director with a wish list of students, who tend to receive early admission. Of the 300 students accepted early in 2017 to Trinity, about half were athletes.
Once again, which sport matters. Trinity seeks players from sports that are rare in low-income public schools, Tough writes, such as field hockey, lacrosse, rowing, and squash.
Derek Thompson: Meritocracy is killing high-school sports
The power of fancy sports doesn’t stop at the college level. It plays a shockingly large role in determining the sort of people who get hired in America’s elite professional-services industry—law firms, investment banks, and consultancies.
In her 2015 book Pedigree, the Northwestern sociologist Lauren A. Rivera asked what elite employers were looking for from potential hires. She found the answer came down to three simple words: Ivy League sports.
Elite firms based their entry-level hiring decisions on two things, Rivera wrote. First they screened for the “best” universities, harvesting the senior crops of schools such as Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton. Second, they scrutinized candidates’ extracurricular activities, especially the sports they played in high school and college.
As you might have guessed, playing any sport wasn’t good enough. Recruiters strongly preferred candidates who played “hockey, tennis, squash, or crew”—rare and exclusive sports, whose rarity and exclusion was precisely the point. “You will never find a squash player in a public school in Detroit,“ one banker told her. “To them, squash is a vegetable." In elite firms, filtering for fancy sports allowed high-status adults to hire their socioeconomic clones without having to ask the rude question: “So, kid, is your family rich like mine, or no?”