Published on 2014/04/21

Five Lessons Higher Education Could Learn from America’s Favorite Pastime

Five Lessons Higher Education Could Learn from America’s Favorite Pastime
Baseball, America’s favorite pastime, has a number of lessons higher education leaders can use to strengthen their institutions.
Spring ushers in a new season providing the opportunity for self-renewal and a fresh start.

It is also the start of a new season of America’s favorite pastime: baseball.

The development of young ball players takes place in the minor league “farm system,” with an understanding that successful players may be promoted to a higher level. The ultimate goal is to reach the major league level, known as “The Show.”

The farm system is a metaphor for any organization that serves as training ground for higher-level endeavors. Postsecondary institutions are often referred by this term. But what are some of the lessons higher education could learn from baseball? Below are five of them:

1. Responding to Failure

Baseball involves learning from failure. Even Hall of Fame hitters fail seven out of 10 tries. Like baseball, business magnates have long promoted the mantra “fail fast and often” as part of their business development plan.

Higher education has also followed this approach in a quest to uncover new discoveries built on trial-and-error research. Baseball players, entrepreneurs and researchers share the same euphoria when the sum of their hard work produces a “home run.” As inventor and scientist Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

2. Knowledge is Power

Baseball is known as a thinking sport where strategy can trump talent. Scouting reports, video review and situational statistics are just some of the tools used to win games. Billy Beane, a major league first round pick by the Mets, failed to meet the expectations of the scouts, who projected him as a star. Although he failed on the field, the applied statistical analysis or “Sabermetrics” he used as the general manager of the Oakland Athletics transformed how teams evaluate players. His impact on the game of baseball is the subject of Michael Lewis‘ 2003 book on baseball economics, “Moneyball.”

Beane’s innovative approach is a great lesson learned. Just because one may fail meeting expectations in one domain, acquired skills have the capability to cross over to another domain.

3. Evaluation and Success Metrics

Baseball players are evaluated on a variety of skill areas needed to help a team succeed. Scouts look for on-base percentage, speed, fielding percentage and many other factors to meet their organization’s needs.

Similarly, students today are often evaluated solely on grades and test scores. One must question if this is the best means to evaluate a student’s talent. Could an academic transcript include other factors employers could use to evaluate and recruit talent? There are emerging efforts in academia to showcase academic course credit as well as co-curricular activities and achievements. This effort provides an opportunity to showcase a more holistic portrait of a student’s capabilities and talent.

4. The Little Things Matter

In addition to completing a college degree, students must also ensure they understand the value of mastering the little things, such as teamwork, problem solving and communication (both oral and written). Sure, the flashy plays might get a ballplayer or student noticed, but it is a rare one who gets the chance to hit the game winning home run. Instead, focusing on doing all the little things as best as you can provides the optimal opportunity for advancement.

There have been scores of baseball players and leaders in industry who were never household names, yet managed to be successful because they did the small things that make teams and companies winners.

5. Teamwork

The skill of working as a team is reflected in relationships, community engagement, sports and particularly in business and life after sports. Baseball, like all sports, is well known for leveraging individual strengths into a cohesive group focused on a common purpose or goal.

This mindset is much more constructive and rewarding than having a group of individually-minded players. Incorporating this skill in the student evaluation process is critical to industry, where more and more teams from diverse backgrounds and disciplines are put together to solve to find innovative solutions to complex problems. Reducing silos between various elements of the institution will go a long way to supporting teamwork and improving student success.


The list of lessons connected to baseball metaphors could go on. In the end, lifelong learning is an ongoing process. As baseball great Yogi Berra said, “It’s not over until it’s over.”

The opportunity for individuals to follow the lessons of baseball and start a new season each year with a sense of optimism and hope is exciting. This mindset is something educators should embrace given their role as the workforce talent “farm system.” They should take pride in developing students and getting them ready for the big leagues.

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Readers Comments

Adrian J 2014/04/21 at 12:26 pm

I love the idea of a more complex and specific group of metrics to measure college performance.

Retention and graduation rates, under their current definition, mean effectively nothing.

Additionally, the statistics themselves are irrelevant unless compared against similar institutions. Any pitcher’s batting stats will look awful, unless compared against other pitchers.

    Edward Abeyta 2014/04/21 at 3:49 pm

    Excellent point you make in terms of comparing against smaller institutions.

Ian Richardson 2014/04/21 at 3:28 pm

I want to respond to Abeyta’s point, “The Little Things Matter.” There are two schools of thought on this. One is Abeyta’s, that institutions should focus on providing broad skills training to prepare students for a variety of jobs. The other is that this strategy makes a student a “jack of all trades, master of none.” This school of thought says students should be taught job-specific skills and groomed for a specialized discipline. I tend to lean toward the latter. Of course, within all programs, a certain number of broad skills, such as oral and written communication, should be taught. However, to encourage students not to go for the “home runs” and settle instead for doing the “little things” is a disservice to them. In this economy, specialization is the key to standing out among the competition.

Edward Abeyta 2014/04/21 at 3:54 pm

Your point is well taken. Going for home runs is the mindset we hope our students seek. I sense having the basics sets the foundation to dream big or go for the big hit.

Jessica Prince 2014/04/22 at 11:32 am

I like the idea of having transcripts show more than a student’s grades, but also his or her skills and competencies. We seem to be moving in that direction anyway, with the growing interest in badges and alternative credentials. Students and job seekers are also keen on the idea, as evidenced by their push to have LinkedIn create new categories to capture their learning and life experiences. Having these skills and experiences appear on a student’s transcript seems like a natural progression.

    Edward Abeyta 2014/04/24 at 12:56 am

    The concept of badges and alternative credentials gaining more attention in our region. I see it mixing in well with other skill mastery metrics emerging. Thank you for your comment.

anon 2014/04/22 at 3:44 pm

While I agree that higher ed should be more open to trial and error in developing innovative programming, I’m aware of their need to balance this with a responsibility to prepare students for the job market. That means programming ultimately has to be recognizable to employers and skills taught have to be translatable to real-life situations.

Students don’t want to be the guinea pigs for programs that may not end up sticking; many don’t have the time or money to do it all over again if it doesn’t work out the first time.

    Edward Abeyta 2014/04/24 at 12:53 am

    Great comment and I agree, “skills taught have to be translatable to real-life situations.”

    Edward Abeyta 2014/04/24 at 12:54 am

    Great comment and I agree, “skills taught have to be translatable to real-life situations.” -Ed

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