THE BLOG
05/31/2016 11:05 am ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

We Should Celebrate Scholars as Much as Athletes

Athletes have been glorified since time immemorial. Historical records tell us the Greek Olympics were underway by 776 B.C. and ancient Egyptians cheered on athletes in competitions thousands of years ago. The glorification continues to this day at the high school, college and professional level -- and sends the wrong message to millions of young people.

The wrong message is that sports are more important than studying. This leads too many children -- particularly children from low-income families -- to grow up believing that playing hard rather than studying hard should be their central focus and will lead to fame and fortune.

But like Don Quixote, nearly every young person who hopes to become a pro athlete making millions of dollars in salary and commercial endorsements is dreaming the impossible dream. Most students never even make it onto their high schools sport teams. Few play on college teams. And the NCAA reports that less than one-tenth of 1 percent of high school football, basketball, baseball, hockey and soccer players go on to play professionally.

Despite this, when recruited high school athletes sign to play at colleges with competitive teams, they are hailed as conquering heroes in the media and their communities -- role models for children a few years younger.

Yet when students who are academic superstars get into our nation's top colleges, few beside their family, friends and teachers pay any attention. A student who tackles a complex math problem or gets a perfect score on the SAT never gets showered with as much adulation as a football player tackling an opponent or a basketball player scoring the winning point.

For example, there are three websites that focus on top high school football and basketball players: ESPN, Rivals.com and 247 Sports. The sites track which colleges these students are considering attending and where they wind up, which high schools they hail from, what positions they play, and list their height and weight.

Highly ranked high school athletes are the subject of competitive bidding by deputy coaches, whose primary job is to stalk the summer sports camps in search of the linebacker built like a tank and the towering basketball player who can score with amazing accuracy. High school coaches are encouraged to help players develop a digital portfolio that's comprised of footage of their best plays to show college recruiters.

In sharp contrast, high school students who are winners of the Intel Science Talent Search draw just small fraction of the glory showered on high school athletes. Yet the three students who were named first-place winners of the 2016 Intel competition in March -- each getting $150,000 -- did some pretty amazing things.

One winner created software that could be used to help develop new drugs to treat cancer and heart disease. Another is developing a cost-effective filter to reduce water pollution. And the third developed a smartphone-based method of diagnosing lung diseases as accurately as expensive devices used in medical labs. These students and their achievements deserve far more attention and praise than they receive.

Academic recruiters for most colleges don't seek out academic superstars. There's usually not even any special effort made to attract the low-income students who have -- against all odds -- attained stellar grade point averages and standardized test scores.

Thankfully, there are exceptions. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, where I am executive director, established a $1 million prize last year for colleges that go out of their way to find such students. Last year, Vassar College received the award because about a fourth of its students are eligible for Pell Grants, the federal government's financial aid program for low-income college students. This year's winner of the prize is Amherst College.

The vast majority of highly selective colleges are not like these schools. According to a Cooke Foundation study issued earlier this year, only 3 percent of students enrolled in the most competitive colleges and universities come from the 25 percent of families with the lowest incomes, while 72 percent come from richest quarter of families. This means that almost all students from low-income families -- particularly non-athletes -- are effectively locked out of our nation's top institutions of higher education.

But things are changing, as some academic stars from struggling families are being singled out for the glory and financial support they deserve. For example, Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in New York City -- which serves over 1,200 mainly African-American students and where 65 percent of the students come from low-income families -- recently held an assembly where I surprised salutatorian Ethan Ambrose by presenting him with the Cooke Foundation's College Scholarship.

We are awarding this prestigious scholarship to 85 outstanding high schools students from low-income families this year. The scholarship is worth up to $40,000 a year and up to $360,000 if a student goes on to receive a Cooke Graduate Scholarship.

Ethan Ambrose is a remarkable young man with a GPA of 98.69. He has been admitted to Harvard University and hopes to become a neurosurgeon. If he fulfills that ambition he will no doubt save the lives of many patients, and improve the lives of many others -- having a far greater impact than any athlete. He is exactly the kind of young person who deserves to be praised and given a chance to succeed at one of our nation's top colleges.

First Lady Michelle Obama has initiated National College Signing Day to make sure that every student in America who gets into a college is celebrated. At over 1,000 sites across the country, thousands of graduating seniors participated in Signing Day ceremonies in late April. This is a good start in refocusing our nation's attention on student achievement in the classroom.

For every talented high school athlete charging across the football field or basketball court to cheers from the stands, there are many talented students working quietly over a computer, a textbook or in a science lab. These students will build America's future. They will create jobs, power our economy, make scientific discoveries, provide medical care, defend our national security, teach the next generation, and do much more. Their contributions are far more important than scoring a touchdown or basket.

Former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy is executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which has awarded about $147 million in scholarships to more than 2,000 high-achieving students from low-income families and $90 million in grants to organizations that serve such students.