Jocks and the Academy


What standards govern the admissions policies of the country’s most “selective” institutions of higher learning, i.e., the prestigious schools with the highest standards of admission? Often not the advertised standards, according to the authors of Reclaiming the Game, a book aimed at exposing and ending a scandal in American academic culture. The supposed key factors determining admission are SAT scores, rank in class, parents’ money and degrees, teachers’ recommendations, the applicant’s performance of after-school good works, and evidence of multiple talents (the applicant plays the tuba, tight end, Hamlet).

William G. Bowen and Sarah A. Levin claim that a different and seldom-publicized factor—athletic talent—frequently outweighs all the others, that coaching staffs regularly exercise decisive power, and that selective universities rarely tell the truth about the extent to which the demand for top athletes in varsity sports determines admissions policies. The authors are troubled by the “opportunity costs” of these policies—the phrase points to the number of academically strong applicants who are turned away when slots are reserved for athletes who are inferior students. They urge that the universities in their study take concrete steps toward reform.

The book is the second recent scholarly study to center its discussion of admission standards on athletics. The first, The Game of Life (2001), was also coauthored by Bowen, former president of Princeton and now president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, collaborating with James Shulman, creator of the College and Beyond database. That book revealed that sports programs run by Ivy League and other elite liberal arts colleges richly reward promising athletes who accept offers of admission. The programs don’t ape the practices common among pay-for-play programs at major sports-obsessed public universities—they don’t pay bonuses for signing, or provide “allowances” and special “bonehead” curricula, and the like. They do, however, offer combinations of financial aid, tuition grants, and post-graduation perks (such as introductions to alumni capable of helping graduates get good jobs). Both the admission of academically underqualified applicants and their favored treatment result, the authors claimed, in

a persistent and widening split between academics and athletics at selective colleges and universities that offer no athletic scholarships, do not compete at the Division I-A level [of the National Collegiate Athletic Association], and presumably exemplify [the] “amateur” ideal.

Bowen and Shulman pressed their findings on college presidents and the latter responded with demands for more details—more empirical evidence. Reclaiming the Game answers that demand.

Working with a new collaborator, Ms. Levin, a Mellon Foundation research associate and former All-American collegiate athlete, Bowen starts the book with an account of recruiting practices, coaches’ methods of influencing admissions policy, and the academic choices and performances of college athletes. Thereafter comes extended analysis of the so-called “academic-athletic divide,” defined as “the growing disjuncture between intercollegiate sports and the academic core of selective colleges and universities.” In their final section Bowen and Levin give a lengthy list of reforms that they believe could reduce this divide.

The book’s case rests on information supplied by…

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