Ivy League reconsiders role of athletics in admissions

by Karla Kingsley | 5/2/02 5:00am

Recent examination of policies surrounding admissions and athletics have prompted some schools in the New England Small College Athletic Conference to make changes, and Ivy League schools are also considering modifications.

Though Ivy League schools haven't yet made changes, the role that athletics plays in admissions is a persistent topic of discussion.

Both Karl Furstenberg, Dartmouth's dean of admissions, and Jeffrey Orleans, the executive Director of the Ivy League, believe that the Ivies have been doing a good job balancing athletics and academics, but Furstenberg anticipated that changes may come soon.

"We have been working on this for a long time. We aren't perfect, but we know how to do it. We are trying to keep our own house in order ... We think we are walking the right road," Orleans said.

Furstenberg said he could not be sure exactly what changes may be instituted, but he said that administrators were looking at two areas of possible change -- the recruitment and admissions of athletes and the experience athletes have after being admitted.

"They are thinking about ways to be reasonable about the time commitment ... with schedules, practices and travel," Furstenburg said. There is "a lot of discussion about ways of limiting the number of recruited athletes in different sports. Where that [will come] out I honestly don't know. I think there may be some guidance in limiting out-of-season practice and travel."

According to Orleans, "This is not a new issue for us. We have been reviewing these issues and thinking about them for a long time," he said. "The NESCAC are getting organized in a way that they have not been before ... we have been organized in this way for a long time, 25 years."

All the Ivy League schools do recruit athletes, and according to Karl Furstenberg, "most of the students who are playing most of our varsity sports that seem to be contributing at a high level have probably been recruited."

But Furstenberg emphasized that athletes, recruited or not, have to go through the same admissions process as all other students. He explained that coaches recruit athletes and work with the admissions office to help gauge what each student could bring to the College.

"Having a coach say 'this is a very good athlete' certainly makes a difference on that aspect of the admission ... but [we have to ask] is this student going to take advantage of the school?" Orleans said.

Furstenberg played down the influence coaches have on the admission of a particular athlete.

"Coaches have input into admissions decisions ... but all the decisions are made entirely in the admissions office," he said. "When we evaluate students, the focal point really is on the academic side."

Administrators compared athletic ability to other extracurricular talents that help students gain admissions.

Tom Parker, Amherst's Dean of Admissions and Financial aid explained that with the current level of applicants, it is possible for elite schools to accept an entire class from the top one-half percent of SAT scores, but that "there are certain populations that just aren't there."

"To what degree are we going to depart from this la-la land of smart kids," Parker wondered, in order to have a diverse student body?

Furstenberg mentioned that in some aspects, athletics compares to other activities in which students participate on campus, but he said athletics is easier to regulate.

At Dartmouth, he said, "there is more demand for your time ... that creates a certain amount of stress. A place like this has to think about those pressures when you add them up -- you guys are busy."

Of the current discussion going on in various forums, Furstenberg said, "Athletics is always being fine-tuned ... this might be a part of that continuing evolution."

The changes made to some NESCAC members' policies are partly a result of internal debates as well as a response to a recently published book, "The Game of Life," by James Shulman and William Bowen.

In the book, authors studied the role of athletics in Ivy League schools, concluding that in many cases the schools placed too much emphasis on athletics, admitting students whose couldn't measure up academically.

The "little three" of the NESCAC, Williams, Amherst and Wesleyan, decided to make the change simultaneously, reducing the number of "athletic admits" to each school from 96 to 66 over three years, according to Parker.

Parker explained Amherst's motivation for making the change. "We had gone through two swings of the pendulum. First, [there was] an under-emphasis, a lack of attention to athletes. The football program suffered grievously," he said. Then "they came back and over-compensated, taking too many kids that in retrospect should not have been admitted."

Parker explained that although athletic admits are given to students on the basis of athletic ability, these students are still held to high academic standards.

"Their SATs put them in the top six percent of kids going on to college," Parker said.

Although other NESCAC schools haven't made any changes yet, admissions directors said that the issue is constantly discussed throughout the conference.

"The admissions officers within the NESCAC schools are trying to develop a more common language, trying to be more like one another as we discuss these issues," Middlebury admissions director John Hanson said.

Hanson cited the results of a study that he had done. "I found that the percentage of athletes that were admitted was virtually the same" as non-athletes, he said. "We definitely look at academics first and foremost."