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"A Little Secret: Athletics at the Most Selective Colleges and Universities in the Nation": College and University Admissions, Part III

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I'm going to state a fact that most of you who follow admissions at highly selective colleges probably don't know. Roughly 20 percent, or one-fifth, of the entering class at the Ivy League universities and the leading small liberal arts colleges are recruited athletes. They are not "walk-ons"; they are actively recruited and there is a great deal of competition within and beyond the Ivy League for the best of those athletes in order to produce winning sports teams. In contrast, about 5 percent of the students at athletic powerhouses like the University of Michigan, Notre Dame, and the Pac 10 schools are recruited scholarship athletes. What is going on here? The Ivy League and their smaller liberal arts companions are not really contending for almost all national athletic titles, and they claim to admit "student-athletes?" All of what follows, I confess, comes from a former jock, since many years ago I competed in both baseball and basketball for Columbia, and I remain an avid, if not addicted sports fan.

This plethora of recruited athletes is not a secret known only to a handful of people. In fact, James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen (the former president of Princeton and later the president of the Andrew G. Mellon Foundation) revealed these facts and many more in an important book, The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, published almost a decade ago. Bowen also co-authored a second policy oriented book on athletics at top tier colleges and universities.1 Bowen and his collaborators have studied this matter in detail by collecting a tremendous amount of data and subjecting them to detailed analysis - testing all manner of hypotheses about the athletes and how they do in college and beyond. He followed several different graduating classes at these schools - one from 1976, another from 1989 and a final group that graduated in 1999. In full disclosure, when I was provost at Columbia, I joined Bowen around the time of his book's publication in a failed attempt to change policies towards recruiting athletes to the Ivy League. Despite the facts and the initial efforts at change, the situation at these universities and their recruited athletes today is much the same as it was in 2000.2

How did the number of recruited athletes reach today's proportions at these elite schools? First, the Ivy League supports more athletic teams than any other conference in the nation. Harvard has 39 intercollegiate teams; Cornell, Yale and Columbia have over 30. Correlatively, the University of Michigan has 25; Notre Dame has 24, and UCLA, 22. Second, Title IX, which has made the world of positive difference for women athletes, requires that schools attempt to reach gender parity in their athletic programs - in terms of proportional numbers and meeting the needs of women wanting to participate in organized team sports. The number of women's teams has expanded over time, which has had, of course, a large effect on the number of recruited athletes. Third, since the Ivy League adheres to a "need blind admissions" and "full need financial aid" policy, no student is given an athletic scholarship to attend these schools, and it follows that students don't lose their financial aid if they decide after being admitted, or after the first year of their participation in a sport's team, to quit the team and devote themselves to other things. Fourth, recruited athletes, for the high profile sports of football, basketball, and hockey (not all Ivy schools have a formal hockey team) receive a very substantial edge or advantage in the admissions process. Some are what are known as "coaches picks" and at least for the big time sports their SAT scores are over 100 points lower than the class average3 - yet they have about a 30 percent advantage in getting admitted compared to non-athletes in the applicant pool. These athletes' SAT scores are well above the national average, but far lower than most other students who are admitted into these distinguished schools.4 Fifth, recruited athletes tend to finish their college careers in the lower third of their graduating class; many of them dropped off their teams long before their graduation. Each year, Ivy League schools, allowing for significant attrition in numbers, recruit more football players than the national champions. Sixth, Bowen found, to the surprise of many, no evidence that former athletes donated more to their alma mater than non-athlete graduates. Finally, on the brighter side, Ivy League athletes graduate at almost the same rate as other students in their class (more than 90 percent) and they do very well after college graduation, both economically and in terms of their involvement in and service to their communities.

The policy issue is not, of course, whether there should be athletic teams at these great universities and colleges. No one has advocated their elimination. There are many ways in which individuals and universities and colleges benefit from student participation in intercollegiate and club athletics. Athletes learn important life lessons, such as the need for hard work, personal discipline, and working as part of a team - all elements that prove useful later on for achieving success at almost any task. Of course, athletics is not the only way of learning these lessons or acquiring these traits. Moreover, from the institutional point-of-view, rooting for the home team (especially if they are winners, like Duke's basketball team) tends to increase the level of social cohesion and integration on campuses that are often divided and in conflict on a wide set of political and social issues.

Given the extraordinary number of exceptionally qualified and superior candidates with diverse interests and talents who apply to the Ivy League schools, over 90 percent of whom are going to be disappointed by the outcome, why in the world are the schools using up 20 percent of their slots on recruited athletes? To be very concrete, if Columbia has a freshman class of 1,200, that means about 240 slots are allocated to recruited athletes. The Ivy League was, in fact, formed as a football conference, but it was also intended to exemplify the values of the student-athlete, that is, the student who participated in athletic competition rather than say reporting for the campus newspaper, but was essentially indistinguishable from the rest of the class in terms of academic ability and career goals. The objective never was to win national championships; it was to provide opportunities for extremely bright youngsters to participate in athletic competition and I daresay, to live up to that old cliché of having a sound mind and a sound body. If national championships were won, and they were occasionally in lower profile sports, such as fencing and lacrosse, that was unexpected icing on the cake. But the gradual growth in the number of recruited athletes and the creation of the illusion that these schools are truly competing at the national championship level - in all but the low profile sports, has begun to undermine the central mission and values of these elite schools. The mission is not to produce athletic powerhouses (something that is impossible without athletic scholarships and lower standards than the Ivy League will permit), but to advance the work of brilliant youngsters with extraordinary talent who are apt to make very important contributions to society in a variety of institutional spheres, the least likely of which will be professional athletics. The idea of the "scholar-athlete" has been largely lost at the Ivy League. Too many students who would otherwise be admitted who are apt to become exceptionally talented artists, dancers, physicists, neuroscientists, and sociologists - and maybe even "walk-on" athletes - are losing their opportunities to the recruited athletes, many of whom will never even go out for teams once accepted. For too many, athletics has become a back-door ticket into some of the nation's leading universities and colleges and it ought to be stopped.

What then is to be done? First, the Ivy presidents and provosts who recognize the current state of affairs should commit themselves to rolling back the percentage of recruited athletes over a period of the next decade or so. Second, they could leave perhaps two high profile sports - perhaps football and men and women's basketball - for recruited athletes (and perhaps select one more high profile woman's sport to move toward compliance with Title IX parity requirements). Over a period of years, the number of football players on a team would be cut from over 100 to perhaps 60. All other sports would gradually become non-recruiting sports - students could join teams, but coaches in these sports would not formally recruit athletes to participate in these sports teams. They also would play other teams that also do not recruit athletes in those sports - so that there would be competitive parity, even if at a lower level than one sees at the powerhouse athletic schools. In short, almost all sports would move to the Division III level, but would stay within the NCAA. My personal preference would be for the Ivy League to withdraw from the NCAA. They get little from that association while having to comply with many bureaucratic and compliance regulations that really don't apply to the Ivy League. The Ivies could easily collaborate with like-minded schools to construct their own competitive schedules. Third, a number of sports would be eliminated. Ivy athletics cost the universities money. They are not a source of positive revenue. The idea is to recreate the real world of student athletes and to reduce the numbers of recruited athletes so that other applicants with exceptional talents could be admitted to these Ivy Schools and great liberal arts colleges. Over the next decade these elite schools should strive to reduce the percentage of recruited athletes by half.

This will be a very difficult change to effect at these universities. For one, former athletes represent a powerful and highly vocal interest group among alumni. There also would be resistance from those in Departments of Intercollegiate Athletics and even from faculty and students who would argue against a different style of athletic competition at these universities. There is apt to be leadership inertia. Presidents of these universities are apt to be unwilling to spend the time and personal "capital" fighting the fight needed to slowly redress this problem. It would be, to say the least, time consuming without any guarantee of success. I've known university presidents who quit their jobs (or were forced out) because they simply advocated changing the "mascot" for the university's teams from an offensive to a benign symbol. Think of how much harder it would be to come to grips with these kinds of gradual pullbacks. Finally, individual schools will have a difficult time making these changes unilaterally. It will take agreement among the league presidents to produce such change. Change won't be easy, but I think necessary if we are to strive for still greater fairness in admissions and a more interesting student body at these elite educational institutions.


1William G. Bowen and Sarah A. Levin, Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton University Press, 2003)
2The Ivy League situation differs from the patterns at Division III schools in the NCAA that do not actively recruit athletes, but do field competitive athletic programs. Schools such as MIT and the University of Chicago fall into this category. We can also contrast the Ivy practice with those of places like Stanford University (which over the past 16 years has won the Director's Cup as the most successful overall athletic program in the nation) and Duke University that offer a limited number of athletic scholarships to flesh out their athletic teams.
3This is not true in all sports. For example, golf, crew, and fencing team members scored about as well as the average SAT score in the class. But in the class of 1989 that Shulman and Bowen followed at these schools, football players had scores that were about 120 points lower than the average; and hockey plays even a bit lower.
4It may surprise you that despite the vociferous and often expressed discontent about minority students getting an edge in admissions ("affirmative action"), the differences between minorities and the average class score are roughly the same as the difference among athletes and the average for the entire class. I can't say that I've heard the same level of public outrage against the lower scores of athletes as I have against "preferential admissions treatment" for minorities.