Study Proves Admissions Preference for Athletes

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Claire Bourne News Editor

A recent study commissioned by the presidents of New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) member schools entitled the “Academic-Athletic Divide” revealed that athletes recruited by NESCAC colleges and universities are accepted at a higher rate than students in the general applicant pool and, once enrolled, tend to underperform academically.

Although the report has not officially been released to the general public, The Middlebury Campus has obtained a copy of the document in its entirety.

The study was conducted by William G. Bowen and James L. Schulman as a follow-up to their book “The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values” and was presented to the NESCAC presidents in late September.

The report, while preliminary in nature, systematically addressed participation and treatment of male and female athletes and non-athletes in intercollegiate athletics, recruitment, admission and academic performance.

Eleven NESCAC schools provided in-school data from their matriculating classes of 1995 and admissions data from their entering classes of 1999.

The report defined high-profile athletes as male students who played football, basketball or ice hockey. All other men’s sports fit into the low-profile category, while women’s sports were not classified.

The Statistics

The report’s first area of interest was the student body’s participation in athletics. Citing smaller class size and the relatively high number of athletes needed to field a certain number of teams, the report’s authors argued, “Involvement in intercollegiate athletics has a far greater impact on the campus ethos at a liberal arts college than it does at a Division I university.”

According to the study, 45 percent of male students and 33 percent of female students in the ’95 entering class of all institutions surveyed played on one or more intercollegiate team. The report also revealed “a decided gap” between rates of male and female participation, despite progress in encouraging women’s sports. The report defined the discrepancy as “substantial and continuing.”

Recruitment, Bowen and Schulman continued, has become a more integral part of intercollegiate athletics in the recent past in that active recruiting has increased while the number of “walk-ons” has declined.

The report defined a “recruited athlete” as “a student who had been on a coach’s list when considered for a place in the class by the admissions office.”

Approximately one-third of those applying to NESCAC colleges for places in the class of ’99 were accepted. In contrast, the acceptance rate among NESCAC member schools for “applicants tagged as athletic recruits” reached nearly two-thirds.

Statistics on the class of ’95 indicated that 68 percent of high-profile athletes, 40 percent of low-profile athletes and just under half of female athletes had been recruited. The study also found that an average of more than 20 percent of students partaking in every men’s and women’s intercollegiate sport, with the exception of crew, had been on a coach’s list.

The report revealed that although recruited athletes in the class of ’99 did not for the most part score as high on the SATs as students at large, a male recruit still “enjoyed a 34 percentage point advantage” over an typical male applicant. Female recruited athletes benefited from a 33 percentage point advantage.

High-profile athletes, the study showed, scored an average of 125 points lower on the SATs compared to students at large, whereas the gap for low-profile and female athletes averaged approximately 30 points. Crew was the only sport to boast athletes with an SAT average “higher than, or the same as, the average for students at large.”

After focusing on recruitment, the report moved on to address academic performance. “Rigorous pursuit of things academic and intellectual is surely a touchstone of selective colleges and universities,” Bowen and Schulman maintained, “and any evidence that suggests a lack of commitment to such goals can call into question the institution’s allegiance to this basic purpose.”

That said, the report revealed that NESCAC college athletes are more likely to graduate than their peers. However, these athletes’ academic performance is a different story. Data for the ’95 cohort showed that high-profile athletes attending NESCAC institutions ranked, as a group, in the 28th percentile of their class — 20 points lower than their non-athlete counterparts.

Two-thirds of these high-profile athletes were found to be in the bottom third of their class while a quarter were in the bottom tenth, the report continued.

Narrowing the focus to recruited athletes revealed that 75 percent of those on high-profile teams and more than half of those on low profile teams ended up in the bottom third of their class.

The class of ’95 data indicated a link between active recruitment and academic underperformance in that recruited athletes who participated in high-profile sports ranked significantly lower on the percentile scale than those high-profile athletes whose names did not appear on coaches’ lists. The findings were similar for female athletes.

The Middlebury Connection

Director of Public Affairs Phil Benoit said he was not surprised by the study’s results. “The NESCAC report dropped no drastic bombshells,” he remarked.

While declining to comment on the specifics of the report for this article, in an interview with The Campus on Oct. 5 President John McCardell seconded Benoit’s assertion, stating that there was “nothing particularly controversial or surprising” in the study.

Director of Athletics Russ Reilly commented that the release of this report would prompt “thoughtful questions” about the role of athletics at Middlebury College.

He defined the study as “a check-up” to make sure that NESCAC member schools were “maintaining the right balance.” He continued, “Middlebury has things in balance. We’re not perfect, but we do things reasonably well.”

He criticized the report for “painting all athletes with a broad brush stroke” and for “using only negative terms” when addressing athletes’ academic performance. “[Bowen and Schulman] never discuss those [athletes] who come to Middlebury under-prepared and who then exceed expectations,” he noted.

When asked about how the Athletic Department would proceed with the statistics, Reilly said it was too early to tell. He did comment, however, that each member school should deal for the most part with the report’s findings on an individual basis “because the 11 institutions are so different.”

According to Reilly, the Faculty Athletic Policy Committee will address the report in the weeks to come.

Chris Brown ’03, one of the two students who sits on the committee, stressed the need for a student voice in the discussion of Bowen and Schulman’s findings. “The faculty doesn’t know the student-athlete as well as students do,” Brown maintained, adding that the faculty only see the student side of the student-athlete in the classroom while coaches only see the athlete side of the student-athlete on the playing field.

Brown has not yet seen a copy of the study but said he anticipated a discussion on the issues raised by the findings at the Committee meeting on Nov. 12.

Associate Professor of Biology Grace Spatafora, who serves as secretary of the Faculty Council, affirmed that, while there should be “no need for alarm,” the content of Bowen and Schulman’s report “warranted attention and dialogue.” She said that the Faculty Council would be addressing the report at length in the weeks to come.

Student Government Association (SGA) President Brian Elworthy ‘02.5 informed The Campus that administrators would soon be coming to an SGA meeting to
discuss how the College plans to proceed in light of the Bowen and Schulman’s findings.

Elworthy said he hoped that the report would “provide a basis for educated discussion” about the role of athletics at a liberal arts college such as Middlebury.

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