Mullins: The Right Play
Dartmouth should scale back athletic recruitment.
When College President Phil Hanlon announced the elimination of five varsity sports teams in July of 2020, one reason he cited for the decision was the College’s desire to reduce the number of recruited athletes in each incoming class by 10%. Athletic recruitment, he wrote, “has begun to impact our ability to achieve the right balance between applicants who are accomplished in athletics and applicants who excel in other pursuits.”
Dartmouth, of course, proceeded to fumble the execution of the cuts: In addition to blindsiding the teams involved, the College apparently left itself open to Title IX litigation, forcing the administration into an embarrassing reversal and reinstatement. But the admissions-related reasoning for scaling back athletic recruitment, which acknowledges that athletics can be an unfair force in admissions, remains sound. Dartmouth should think bigger: If it wants a fairer admissions process, the College should create a plan to eliminate athletic recruitment for many of its teams.
Athletic recruitment, taken as a whole, gives an enormous admissions advantage to high school student-athletes, including those at elite universities. We know this because a lawsuit against Harvard University by an anti-affirmative action group has resulted in a flood of never-before-seen admissions data becoming public — and while no elite school conducts admissions exactly the same way, it is unlikely that Dartmouth’s policies differ so enormously from Harvard’s that the issues in Cambridge, Mass. are not also present in Hanover, N.H.
The Harvard data showed that athletes with high academic ratings according to Harvard’s internal admissions scoring system have an eye-popping acceptance rate of 83%, compared to just 16% for non-athletes. Beyond the obvious unfairness of such a system, this admissions advantage has major implications for racial diversity: A University of Chicago analysis of the data found that removing athletic preference entirely from Harvard’s admissions process would result in more Hispanic and Asian-American and fewer white admitted students (the number of Black admitted students would remain about the same). Coupled with other admissions practices like legacy admissions — which should be done away with entirely — athletic recruiting ensures that students from higher-income backgrounds, who are disproportionately white, are on the inside track for admissions.
Scaling back athletic recruitment for Dartmouth sports not offered at the vast majority of high schools would make the admissions process fairer. The National Federation of State High School Associations conducts a yearly survey of high school athletics and claims to include in its data 19,500 high schools across the country (the vast majority of high schools, which probably number upwards of 25,000). According to the organization’s 2018-2019 survey — the most recent available — 16 of Dartmouth’s 35 sports teams represent sports available at less than 20% of high schools nationwide: men’s and women’s lacrosse, women’s field hockey, men’s and women’s ice hockey, men’s and women’s skiing, women’s equestrian, men’s heavyweight and lightweight and women’s rowing, coed and women’s sailing, women’s rugby and men’s and women’s squash. Eight of these teams — rowing, sailing, rugby and squash — are offered by less than 1% of high schools nationwide.
Recruiting for these sports is extraordinarily unfair to the overwhelming number of high schoolers who lack access to them. Dartmouth should end it.
For one thing, recruiting from such a narrow band of schools means that Dartmouth is forced to look to students who got their experience outside of high school — and outside of school-organized athletics, there is often a larger price tag attached. For example, parents whose kids play lacrosse and hockey spend an average of over $7,000 annually on their kids’ involvement. Basketball and soccer, on the other hand, average less than $1,500. If a prospective recruit’s parents can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars every year on equipment, league fees, camps, travel and more, the student will not even have the chance to play these sports, let alone be recruited.
Additionally, these sports are disproportionately white, according to 2021 NCAA statistics not available through their demographics portal that I obtained through a records request. Just as one example, across the Ivy League, men’s and women’s skiing, offered by roughly 5% of high schools nationwide respectively, are over 90% white. In contrast, men’s and women’s basketball, offered by 95% and 93% of high schools nationwide, are 35% and 49% white, respectively. This disparity indicates a serious racial equity issue, given that less than half of students who attend public high schools — 90% of all high school students — are white.
Some argue that the recruiting process helps attract disadvantaged students, and this may be true in some individual cases. But data from the Harvard Crimson’s annual surveys of the freshman class supports the existence of the aforementioned inequities: 83% of recruited athletes in Harvard’s class of 2025 were white, far more than the 53% of the class as a whole, and 46% of recruited athletes in the class of 2022 had family incomes of $250,000 or higher, exceeding the 33% of the class overall.
To be clear, Dartmouth should implement a plan over several years in order to give teams time to adjust and to ensure it does not run afoul of Title IX rules. I also acknowledge the impacts that this change would have on Dartmouth’s athletic programs; it is likely that these teams, forced to accept only walk-on athletes, may not be as competitive with the other Ivies. That is a risk Dartmouth should be willing to take if it means a better admissions process. Additionally, such a change may push the other Ivies to make similar changes, nullifying any negative effects on competitiveness.
Admission to an elite school like Dartmouth is an incredible privilege, one that should be granted as fairly and equitably as possible. I am not suggesting that any student-athletes currently at the College do not deserve to be here — Dartmouth, and every Ivy, rejects thousands of qualified and deserving applicants every year, meaning that no matter what criteria are used to decide who’s in and who’s out, plenty of students who would do well at Dartmouth are denied the opportunity to do so. Student-athletes at Dartmouth worked hard for spots in their classes — but so did students who sank countless hours into paid work to support their families, not to mention theater, debate, band or — dare I say — high school newspapers. Eliminating recruitment for sports that the vast majority of high school students never even have the chance to play would make Dartmouth’s admissions fairer for all.
Kyle Mullins is the former editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth. He is now a member of the Opinion staff and his views do not necessarily represent those of The Dartmouth.