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A Gladiator Class?
In search of public prestige and alumni approval, even “elite” institutions are reaching out to athletes with more vigor than some critics would like. Among those critics are a Yale alumnus and a former president of Princeton who have written a book analyzing the impact of athletic excess. What follows is their summary of the findings.

Faculty members often remark that the most discouraging aspect of teaching is encountering a student who just does not seem to care, who has to be cajoled into thinking about the reading, who is obviously bored in class, or who resists rewriting a paper that is passable but not very good. Such students are failing to take full advantage of the educational opportunities that colleges and universities are there to provide.

Uninspired students come in all sizes and shapes, and no one would suggest that athletes are uniformly different from other students in this regard. But the evidence presented in our book, The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, does demonstrate a consistent tendency for athletes to do less well academically than their classmates—and, even more troubling, a consistent tendency for athletes to underperform academically not just relative to other students, but relative to how they themselves might have been expected to perform. Those tendencies have become more pronounced over time, and all-pervasive: Academic underperformance is now found among female athletes as well as male, among those who play the lower-profile sports as well as those on football and basketball teams, and among athletes playing at the Division III level as well as those playing in bowl games and competing for national championships.

In our research for The Game of Life, we studied 30 academically selective colleges and universities. Being selective means that they receive many more applications from well-qualified students than they have places in their entering classes, and thus must pick and choose among applicants on a variety of criteria, including athletic talent. By national standards, the freshman classes that they admit have very strong academic qualifications—with SAT scores, for example, that are well above national norms, and with large numbers of high-school valedictorians and National Merit Scholarship winners.

The institutions included Ivy League members—Columbia, Princeton, and Yale universities, and the University of Pennsylvania—and women’s colleges—Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Smith, and Wellesley. We also studied coed liberal-arts institutions: Denison and Wesleyan universities, and Hamilton, Kenyon, Oberlin, Swarthmore, and Williams colleges. Some of the others that we reviewed were private universities in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I-A: Duke, Georgetown, Northwestern, Rice, Stanford, Tulane, and Vanderbilt universities, and the University of Notre Dame. Others were Division I-A public institutions: Miami University of Ohio, Pennsylvania State University at University Park, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In addition, we looked at Emory, Tufts, and Washington (Mo.) universities.

What did we find? Athletes who are recruited, and who end up on the carefully winnowed lists of desired candidates submitted by coaches to the admissions offices of those selective institutions, now enjoy a very substantial statistical “advantage” in the admissions process. That advantage—for both male and female athletes—is much greater than that enjoyed by other targeted groups, such as underrepresented minority students and alumni children.

For example, at a representative nonscholarship institution for which we have complete data on all applicants, recruited male athletes who applied to enter with the fall 1999 class had a 48 percent greater chance of being admitted than did male students at large, after taking differences in SAT scores into account. The corresponding admissions advantage enjoyed by recruited female athletes in 1999 was 53 percent. The admissions advantages enjoyed by minority students and legacies were in the range of 18 to 24 percent.

When recruited athletes make up such a substantial fraction of the entering class in at least some colleges, is there a risk that there will be too few places for other students, who want to become poets, scientists, or leaders of civic causes? Is there a possibility that, without realizing what is leading to what, the institutions themselves will become unbalanced in various ways? For example, will they feel a need to devote more and more of their teaching resources to fields like business and economics—which are disproportionately elected by athletes—in lieu of investing more heavily in less “practical” fields, such as classics, physics, and language study? Similarly, as one commentator put the question, what are the effects on those students interested in fields like philosophy? Could they feel at risk of being devalued?

In an ideal world, institutions would like to see a diversity of majors, values, and career choices among all subgroups of students. Society is best served when the financial services sector “inherits” some students who have a deep commitment to understanding history and culture, rather than mainly those with a narrower focus on earning a great deal of money as an end in itself. In the same way, academe benefits when some of those who pursue PhDs include students who also have learned some of the lessons about life that are gained on the playing field, rather than just students with a narrower focus on an arcane, if not obscure, realm of academic research. In short, the heavy concentration of male athletes, in particular, in certain fields of study raises real questions of institutional priorities and balance.

Moreover, high school students, their parents, and their schools watch attentively for the signals that colleges send. The more that leading institutions signal through their actions how much they value athletic prowess, the greater the emphasis that potential applicants will place on those activities. The issuing of rewards based on sports accomplishments supports—and, in fact, makes real—the message that sports is the road to opportunity.

As a result, young people in schools of all kinds—from prep schools to inner-city schools—are less likely to get a message that the way upward is to learn to write computer code or take chemistry seriously when it is not only the big-time-sports institutions but also the Ivies and the most selective liberal arts colleges that place a large premium on athletic prowess, focus, and specialization. Athletics scholarships and tickets of admission to nonscholarship institutions provide a more powerful incentive than the promises contained in high-minded proclamations.

Taken together, such a signaling process has a powerful impact. We were told of one situation in which almost half of the students from a leading prep school who had been admitted to an Ivy League university were either outstanding hockey or lacrosse players, and not particularly noteworthy students. When asked at a recruiting session in a large city about the success of his prep school in placing its students in the most prestigious colleges, the school’s representative gave the absolute number of students admitted to that Ivy League institution, hoped that no one would ask him how many of the admittees had been athletes, and went home with mixed feelings about his presentation. The real issue, however, is not about how forthcoming the prep school representative was in explaining his school’s success in placing students, but the nature of the reality that underlies that “success.”

In fact, the changes in the face of athletics between the 1950s and today can be related to a still broader shift in admissions philosophies. In the 1950s, much was said about the desirability of enrolling “well-rounded students.” One consequence, among many others, was that athletes needed to have other attributes—to be ready to take advantage of the broad range of the institution’s academic offerings, or to be interested in being part of the larger campus community, for example. Many of them were class officers, not just team captains. We suspect that the subsequent success of a number of the athletes of this era in gaining leadership positions, including positions as chief executive officers, owes something to their having had a strong combination of attributes.

Sometime in the late 1960s or the 1970s, that admissions philosophy was altered in major ways. At some of the institutions with which we are familiar, the attack on the desirability of the well-rounded individual came from faculty members. One group of mathematicians objected vehemently to the rejection of candidates who had extremely high math aptitude scores but were not impressive in other respects. A new admissions mantra was coined; the search was on to enroll the “well-rounded class,” rather than the well-rounded individual. The idea was that the super-mathematician should definitely be admitted, along with the super-musician and maybe even the super-gymnast. It was argued that, taken together, such an array of talented individuals would create an attractively diverse community of learners. For some years now, most admissions officers at academically selective institutions have talked in terms of the well-rounded class.

The mathematicians who lobbied for the admission of high-school students with off-the-scale mathematical potential were absolutely right. “Spiky” students of that kind belong in a great university with a great mathematics department. We are much more skeptical, however, that “spikiness” can be used to justify the admission of a bone-crushing fullback whose high-school grades are over the academic threshold but who otherwise does not seem a particularly good fit for the academic values that a college espouses. There are many types of spikiness, and the objective should be to assemble a well-rounded class with a range of attributes that resonate with the academic and service missions of the institution. Looked at from that perspective, the arguments for spiky mathematicians and for spiky golfers seem quite different.

We also wonder how well some of the increasingly spiky athletes who entered the colleges that we studied in 1989 (and those who entered later) will do in the long run. Not as well, we suspect, as their male predecessors who entered in the fall of 1951, and the female athletes who entered in 1976—and who appear to have had, as the saying goes, “more arrows in their quivers.”

It seems clear that consideration should be given to changing the way in which at least some admissions offices approach the athletics side of the process of selecting a class. The admissions process should rely much less heavily on the coaches’ lists, and less weight should be given to raw athletic talent and single-minded commitment to a sport—or what we can only call athletic “purposiveness.” Rather, admissions staffs could be encouraged to revert to the practices of earlier days, when more weight was given to athletic talent seen in combination with other qualifications that made the applicant attractive to the institution—including a commitment to the educational purposes of the institution. The exceptional records achieved both in college and after graduation by the male athletes who entered in 1951 and the female athletes who entered in 1976 reflect the presence of the admissions approach we are advocating.

In sum, intercollegiate athletics has come to have too pronounced an effect on colleges and universities—and on society—to be treated with benign neglect. Failure to see where the intensification of athletics programs is taking us, and to adjust expectations, could have the unintended consequence of allowing intercollegiate athletics to become less and less relevant to the educational experiences of most students, and more and more at odds with the core missions of the institutions themselves. The objective should be to strengthen the links between athletics and educational missions—and to reinvigorate an aspect of college life so that it can be celebrated for its positive contributions, not condemned for its excesses or criticized for its conflicts with educational values.  the end


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