Admissions Scandal Stokes Hard Questions on Recruited Athletes
A dozen years ago, the University of Washington barred athletic coaches from having contact with anyone in the admissions department.
With a move that now seems prescient, administrators sought to allay any concerns that coaches could put undue pressure on admissions personnel, while also bringing more oversight to athletics, in this case through a committee of senior faculty members, deans and other university representatives.
The previous arrangement, said Philip Ballinger, a top administrator, “didn’t have sufficient transparency; it didn’t have enough eyes on it.”
The leeway coaches get in recruiting has long been a point of discussion in higher education circles. But after federal investigators last week revealed a broad admissions cheating scandal, a number of colleges began asking hard questions about how they evaluate athletic applicants and oversee the chosen few whom coaches recommend for admission.
In what prosecutors described as the biggest case of admissions fraud they had investigated, 50 people were accused in a scheme that involved paying bribes to coaches and to people who monitor admissions tests in order to fraudulently get the children of wealthy patrons into some of the nation’s most elite colleges.
Some students were accepted as recruited athletes even though they did not play the sports described in their applications. They gained an advantage through the widespread practice of allocating a certain number of admissions spots to athletes who might not get in otherwise.
This process has been followed for decades in the pursuit of competitive teams, which burnish a university’s reputation, inspire alumni loyalty and often help with fund-raising.
Now, the fraud case has sent a thunderbolt through the higher education community.
“Every college president in America called his athletic director the morning after that admissions fraud story broke and asked: How do we make sure this doesn’t happen at our school?” said Bill Martin, the athletic director at the University of Michigan from 2000 until his retirement in 2010. “And certain athletic directors were smart enough to call their presidents first to insist that they were going to start verifying the status of every admitted recruited athlete.”
Indeed, at Yale University, where F.B.I. investigators say the longtime women’s soccer coach accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars to facilitate the admission of a recruit who did not actually play soccer, the university president, Peter Salovey, announced late last week that new oversight policies had already been put in place. The Yale athletic director will begin reviewing every proposed recruit’s credentials before admission, and recruited athletes who fail to make a team after they arrive will receive “close scrutiny,” a university statement said.
A broad overhaul of athletic admissions systems in Division I, the highest level of N.C.A.A. competition and the level the colleges in the scheme compete in, has been overdue, according to several athletic administrators interviewed in recent days.
Battles over blue-chip recruits in football and basketball already tend to be heavily scrutinized. In those upper echelon sports, if there is money changing hands, it is from coaches to recruits, not the other way around.
But in the lower-profile sports like crew, volleyball, tennis and soccer — often called the Olympic sports — there has been more room for bribes and exploitation. And the most common route in such a fraud is to designate a phony athletic prospect as a “recruited walk-on.” In nearly every case of counterfeit athletic credentials cited in last week’s indictments, from Stanford to Texas to Yale, the prospective athlete appeared to be filling the nebulous role of recruited walk-on.
Such applicants are not even assured a spot on the team. But they are often on a list of five to 20 athletes — it varies from sport to sport — that a coach is permitted to submit to the admissions department.
The two daughters of the actress Lori Loughlin, who was charged in connection with the fraud case last week, were passed off as crew recruits despite never having competed in the sport, according to federal prosecutors.
That choice of sport may not have been an accident. In a sport like women’s crew, where rosters can balloon to 125 athletes, many teams have scores of recruited walk-ons. (Such large rosters can help a college comply with federal equality laws, balancing out the number of male athletes in football.)
“When the rosters are that big, like they are in women’s crew, I could see where it would be possible for a coach to slip in an unqualified person as a recruited walk-on,” said Martin, who added that Michigan annually audited team rosters.
The recruitment of athletes in such sports may be an even bigger factor in the admissions process at colleges in the N.C.A.A.’s lowest tier, Division III, where athletic scholarships are forbidden.
Division III is also the largest tier, with nearly 450 institutions, including many of the country’s most selective small liberal arts colleges, where acceptance rates can be as low as 15 percent. These colleges might field as many as 30 teams from enrollments as small as 2,000, with varsity athletes, many of them afforded an advantage in admissions, making up 30 percent to 45 percent of the student body.
These small colleges, like the largest ones, also give preferential treatment to applicants who excel in music, the arts and a host of other skills. There are also allowances for students from the least-populated states.
“Admissions is filling all the different buckets,” said Wendy Smith, the athletic director at Haverford College, a highly rated institution near Philadelphia. “And our athletes are right in there. We are not in any way gaming the system. They are absolutely on par academically.”
The cost of fielding a successful sports team in the ultracompetitive college athletic landscape often leads to other troubling conflicts of interest.
In the Ivy League, for example, most coaches are responsible for fund-raising that bridges the gap between support from the college and the true price tag of competing successfully. That can lead to uncomfortable decisions about composing a team, especially since athletes’ families often become the leading donors.
“You have a family who will give you $25,000, but then you are not going to play their daughter?” said Paul Wardlaw, who was the women’s tennis coach at Brown University for 14 years.
“The whole scandal is interesting, and it’s human nature to take the easy route,” he said, “but there are some systematic issues that are contributing to this.”
At many elite institutions, the notion that recruited athletes have been granted an unfair advantage is palpable.
Cameron Green, a tight end on the football team at Northwestern University, which accepts about 13 percent of applicants, conceded that several of his high school classmates who did not play sports had applied to Northwestern and been rejected.
“It’s easier for athletes to get in, so I know that’s hard for regular students,” said Green, a senior who does not plan to play football in his final year of eligibility. “A lot of kids I knew were confused when I got in and they didn’t, but you know, at the end of the day, the school looks at your demographics on a piece of paper and decides to admit you before they even meet you.”
The high percentage of recruited athletes at some colleges, particularly smaller ones, has other consequences, some of them at odds with institutional ambitions for a diverse student body.
Because success in youth sports today often comes more easily to affluent families who spend copiously on private instruction, the rosters of college teams have become predominantly white — nearly 80 percent at some small schools.
In the end, some in the higher education community believe that last week’s admissions fraud scandal, while an embarrassing lesson in what policy changes need to be made, is nevertheless creating a false impression of the state of admissions procedures at American colleges.
“There is now this notion that admissions is a competitive cesspool, and it’s not,” said Michael Reilly, the executive director of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers. “In fact,” Reilly added, “most campuses nationwide fail to meet their enrollment goals. But then we have this segment that’s highly competitive and has created a completely different dynamic. If I were on those campuses, I’d be sitting down and saying, ‘Let’s rethink how we’re doing this.’”