David Leonhardt at the New York Times points out that the enrollment scandal all over the news this week would not happen but for the outsize role that athletics plays in college admissions. To summarize: admissions decisions give preferential treatment to excellence in a variety of areas beyond academics– music, art, social service, research activity, athletics. They also boost admissions chances for other groups including low-income, underrepresented minority, and legacy students. However, by far the biggest admissions boost went to recruited athletes, who were “30 percentage points more likely to be admitted than a nonathlete with the same academic record.”
Curious about how that works? You may have heard of the Ivy League Academic Index, aka, “Who’s that short guy at the end of the bench?” Many elite schools have similar approaches. For example, in this blog post, the Williams admissions process is broken down and shows, among other things, how athletes get preferential treatment compared with other attributes. Per the post, the starting point of the admissions process for all applicants is the academic rating: “Each applicant gets an academic rating from 1 to 9 that focuses heavily on his or her high school grades, standardized test scores, the rigor of his or her academic program within the context of the school setting and the strength of teacher recommendations.” Students with an academic rating below 2 are rejected, unless they have a specific attribute the school is looking for.
But that only applies to some attributes. As an admissions director states, “We are able to admit roughly 120 top rated musicians each year from the top of the academic reader rating scale–what we refer to as academic 1′ and 2’s (broadly defined as 1500+ SAT’s and very top of the class).”
What about athletes? “There are 100 or so admissions decisions which are driven by a Williams coach. You are either on her list or you are not. These “tips” and “protects” are, by definition, only used for students with AR 3 and below.” Williams is among the 100 most selective colleges in the United States, admitting around 1,300 students each year and enrolling around 600. That means that 8% of admissions offers went to athletes who are in the bottom half of the class, academically.
Does that hurt them in the long run, or do athletes enter college with lower academic credentials because their commitment to training may have come at the expense of high school academics? Perhaps the skills that enabled them to succeed in sports will translate to academic success in college, and that makes them a good fit for elite schools. Fortunately there’s quite a bit of data to answer the question, Do athletes flourish academically in college, or at least achieve similar results as do their classmates with better high school academic records? According to Time magazine, the answer is a resounding no: “Student-athletes tend to take easier classes and get lower grades than non-athletes. This is not only true for schools from power conferences in big-money sports, it has been observed in Division III liberal arts colleges and Ivy League schools, neither of which even offer athletic scholarships.”
If the long-term repercussion of this scandal is that colleges rethink the role of athletics in admissions, perhaps that will leave everyone in a better place.