Yes, students can get a good education at a big football school

Veteran Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews writes mostly about K-12 education, but he is also interested in the results for students after they’ve graduated and enrolled in college. He’s also a self-professed college football freak, looking forward to the first-ever playoff series for the national title.

The two semi-final games pitted Alabama against Ohio State and Oregon against Florida State. All four are known as big sports schools, and for many Americans, that implies that they aren’t serious academic institutions. Sure, at halftime during college games, there is almost always a spiffy plug that shows each school as a shining light for academic achievement. But for the few fans who aren’t at the refrigerator then, such plugs do little to change the perception that if the football team is stellar, it’s because the academics are pathetic.

In his article, “Those football powers may be good for you,” Mathews argues that it just isn’t true that football prowess means academic weakness.

Working against those schools (and many, many others) is the U.S. News & World Report ranking system, which makes it seem that our necessarily small number of highly selective schools are the good ones, and that students who attend less selective schools must have had to “settle” for them due to academic deficiencies. Alabama and Florida State accept 57 percent of those who apply; Ohio State slightly “better” at 56, and Oregon far worse at a shocking 74 percent!

Mathews observes something that cannot be stressed enough: whether someone has gone to a highly-ranked, elite school or a bottom-ranked school that almost no one has heard of doesn’t tell us anything about his learning and later accomplishments in life. The four schools vying for the title, he writes, “have talented faculties, good facilities, critical masses of academically ambitious students and successful alumni.”

While it is perfectly true that a disturbingly large percentage of students who attend big sports and party schools (the two usually go together) just want an easy degree while having fun for four or more years—for instance, West Virginia, which Professor Karen Weiss dubbed “Party University” in her book—serious students can and do seek out intellectually worthwhile courses.

Mathews points to Zac Bissonette as a good example of someone who graduated from a non-elite university (University of Massachusetts) and has done just as well as if he’d gone to an elite school such as Harvard. He praises Bissonette’s book Debt-Free U for showing young people that those super-selective schools they’re dying to get into are not necessarily any better.

Mathews himself is a Harvard alum, but writes, “I got much less out of the courses than I did working for the student newspaper.”

Americans used to understand that education is what the individual makes of it. A couple of generations back, before the college credential mania set in, few judged an individual based on his or her college pedigree or lack thereof. Now, sadly, we have gotten into the bad habit of doing that.

An equally bad habit is that we see in many students, who think that college education is merely a matter of passing enough courses to get enough credits to earn the degree. They regard education as a passive endeavor in which they enroll and then accept whatever education might come their way.

University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson is correct in arguing that students need to fight for their education by seeking out courses they want to learn about and the professors who really want to teach students, rather than treating them as annoying impediments to the research that advances their careers.

Students can do that at Ivy League universities, sports powerhouses, middling state schools, or small liberal arts colleges. They can also do it on their own.

If, like Jay Mathews, you’ll be glued to the TV during the football championship game, remember that among the student-athletes on each roster, some will have probably gained little or nothing in intellectual capacity in their college years. Some others, however, will have done quite a bit of serious work and a few might even have fought for an education.

But more to the point, remember that universities can produce graduates, but only the individual can make sure he has received any education.