Khan: Admitting Our Athletes

Athletic recruitment is fundamentally unfair.

by Osman Khan | 4/26/19 2:05am

Dartmouth students aren’t so great at most of the sports they play. Not on a national level anyway. Barring specific winter sports, which we often excel in, as well as a few other exceptions, our athletic performance isn’t anywhere near as impressive as our alumni’s professional and academic showings are. Don’t argue with that; the last time our roughly 100-man football team produced an NFL player was a full 15 years ago, and the last time our basketball team produced an NBA player was in 1990. And yet, we hand out some of the most coveted seats in higher education to recruits in the name of upholding the strength of our athletic programs: over a fifth of the current student body is comprised of varsity athletes.

More unsettling than how many athletes we admit is how we admit them. Ask almost any student-athlete you know and they’ll tell you how early they received a promise of admission to Dartmouth College. Some athletes receive verbal promises of admission from coaches or “likely letters” prior to the main application period. Importantly, though they’re called likely letters, according to the Ivy League Agreement, they have the “effect of letters of admission” and can only be revoked on “the same terms as letters of admission.” 

We don’t know how easy it is for student-athletes to get into Dartmouth specifically. But we do know how easy it is at our Ivy League sibling, Harvard University. In a recent piece in “The Atlantic,” Saahil Desai outlined how applicants who are given a four out of six in academic performance by Harvard’s admissions staff see drastically different admittance rates depending on their athlete status. It’s not two times or three times easier for athlete applicants with this score to receive admission. It’s nearly 1,000 times easier for them compared to non-recruits. That number is mind-boggling.

The arguments for maintaining priority admissions for athletes are flimsy. First, while athletic programs pull in donor money, I find it hard to believe that alumni donations to a school this loved by its students would dry up if the system for varsity athlete admissions changed. Athletics isn’t a core source of revenue for Dartmouth; we aren’t Duke or Notre Dame, and our brand isn’t heavily reliant on athletics.

So why are athletic admissions the way they are? Well, it may be just another way to push affluent but academically mediocre students into top colleges. Sixty-five percent of Ivy League athletes are white — a figure far higher than that for the general student population. The issue of specially protecting the affluent, the connected and the white in the admissions process is a tough one to solve. But we can start by not letting in academically mediocre students two years early just because they do well at a sport.

I want to be clear about something. I know for a fact that there are some athletes at the College who are smarter than I am. I know for a fact that most all athletes work brutal hours and spend weekend after weekend on the road representing the Big Green. But low-income applicants all over America who work just as many hours as someone with enough money to play sports like crew and lacrosse get rejected every year. And that isn’t fair.

Everyone has something that gave them a boost in the application process. Be it race, upbringing, a predisposition to intelligence or family wealth, your admission was not wholly a product of your effort. With that in mind, I’m usually willing to give students of most stripes the benefit of the doubt and assume they deserve to be here as much as anyone else. But it’s time to admit that some athletes shouldn’t be here. They shouldn’t be admitted in such high amounts, taking spots from more academically-qualified applicants.

Let’s admit this is a problem and start fixing it. Athletes should have to go through the grind of the full admissions process like the rest of us. Of course, admissions officers should consider athletic achievement just like any extracurricular accomplishments. But athletes should not have a special pipeline to admission. As Dartmouth’s acceptance rate drops ever lower, athletic recruitment increasingly stands out as unfair and unwarranted.

Osman Khan is a member of the Class of 2021.

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