Keeping Score

The recruiting numbers game gets more complicated every year. But is the Ivy League shooting at the right goal?

Brian M. Haas

Football recruiting coordinator Eric T. Westerfield, left, chats with another football coach

Eric T. Westerfield, a former defensive lineman at Hamilton College, knows a thing or two about how to sack a quarterback. But as the Harvard football team’s defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator looks to replace the five members of his D-line who will graduate this spring, it’s not one recruit’s lack of explosion after the snap that’s giving him headaches. “This kid has a 3.8 GPA and a 1,270 on his SAT’s,” he says of a candidate in the “Crimson” category of his computer database, a top prospect. “You might get one or two like that in. [Another] one, a 1,230, 38th in a class of 286, same thing. We’ll tell him to retake his SAT’s.”

Ivy League rules prevent Harvard from accepting more than two football recruits in the top 15% of their class who don’t break 1,250. The competition for those two slots at the academic bottom of the Harvard football team, known as the first “band,” is fierce. “You’re not going to take a marginal player in the first band,” Westerfield says. “You only get two. It wouldn’t make sense.” But if the recruit can score just 20 points higher on the test, he suddenly looks a lot more likely to line up at scrimmage next year. Given his class rank, a 1,250 would push him past the cutoff for the second band, which gets seven slots. An improvement to 1,330 would have an even bigger effect on his chances, pushing him into band number three, from which Harvard can take 13 players. “If [this] kid’s a first-bander, we can’t take him,” Westerfield says. “If he’s a second-bander, we can. We’ll tell him that.”

If he makes the second band, applies to Harvard, and the tapes of him on the field as a senior look good, the football team is likely to formally support him. And with that support, his chances of getting into Harvard begin to resemble his chances of getting into, say, Providence College. Each year, Westerfield says, the team supports 50 to 60 applicants, 30 of whom are accepted, a rate of 50 to 60 percent. Providence’s acceptance rate last year was 55.2 percent. Harvard’s was under ten.

Is this fair? Westerfield thinks so. “Athletes add to the University with school spirit and entertainment,” he says. “Who’s to say what’s more important?” But about 20,000 kids will apply to Harvard this year, thousands of whom never saw a 1,300 on their first practice test, and few appreciate being passed over for a defensive lineman who could barely get into Cornell if he didn’t play football. An increasingly vocal set of critics think that traditional academic considerations are all too often left on the bench. Former Princeton president William G. Bowen just published the follow-up book to his 2000 The Game of Life, called Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values, arguing that recruited athletes are academically and socially unrepresentative of the student bodies at elite schools. And this summer, in the name of improving “representativeness,” the Ivy League raised its base academic standards for athletes and imposed regulations on all sports, rather than just football and men’s basketball and ice hockey.

Over the last decade, critics focused on the big-time, revenue-generating college sports programs—North Carolina basketball, Michigan football and the like. But as the frenzy over selective college admissions grew to a feverish pitch in the second half of the 1990s, disgruntled rejected applicants began to point fingers at competing constituencies they believed were unqualified—first minorities, and more recently legacies. It was only logical that the biggest group of students to benefit from a non-academic selection preference—athletes—have now come under fire.

The way elite colleges approach athletic admissions reveals much about how broadly they define the merit that underpins meritocracy. Nobody wants a British-style system, where academic test scores are all that matter. But colleges recognize musical talent, reward unique life experiences and the overcoming of adversity, and recently established a “compelling interest” in racial diversity at the Supreme Court. What, if anything, separates prowess on the playing field from talent on the trombone?

With fans, coaches and alumni demanding successful squads, and outside critics and professors calling athletes academic underachievers, admissions offices are being pressured to answer this question from “every conceivable source and constituency,” according to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67. How admissions committees serve these two masters will effectively chart the course their universities take over the next decade. Harvard’s preliminary answer may be found in the envelope, thick or thin, that many of the Crimson students in Westerfield’s database receive this December.

Narrowing the Field

While recruiting is a full-time occupation for coaches in any sport, it is especially demanding in football, where rosters are the biggest and most specialized. Harvard’s team database starts with the names of some 7,000 high school football players, which they get from subscription services and correspondence with coaches. Because of Harvard’s sky-high admissions standards, coaches leave most on the cutting room floor as soon as their SAT scores come in. “A lot of those kids are not going to be recruitable due to academics,” Westerfield says. “Anyone that has a red flag that sticks out—if he’s not in the top 10 percent of their class, maybe stretch it to 15, he can’t get in. Below 1,250 or 1,300 SAT’s, it’s also very difficult to get in.” “It isn’t advisable to go to a game and fall in love with a kid who can never get in,” says Mark Mazzoleni, head coach of the men’s hockey team.

After the initial round of concessions to reality, the team sends potential recruits a blank videotape, which they hope to receive back with game film from the senior year. If the coaches remain impressed with a prospect, soon after applications arrive, they will put that candidate on their recruiting list, ranked and grouped by position. They pass this list on to their admissions liaison, a Byerly Hall staffer responsible for interaction with the team. Every student on a recruiting list is invited to visit the University at Harvard’s expense, and is guaranteed an interview with an admissions official in addition to the standard alumni interview. Bowen’s book showed that a student with a 1,200 combined SAT score was five times more likely to be admitted to at least one Ivy League school if he or she made it onto a recruiting list.

Unlike most Harvard applicants, who are deciding between Harvard and similarly highly-ranked schools based on academics, social life and extracurriculars, many recruited athletes receive full scholarship offers from colleges that demand an early commitment to attend. “Many kids we recruit are not making decisions on Harvard versus another Ivy,” says baseball head coach Joe Walsh. “It’s Harvard versus a scholarship school, and having to pay tuition or not. When a kid is 17 or 18, we’re trying to get him to look at the big picture, which is 20 years down the line with a Harvard degree in your pocket, but we lose a lot to Stanford and Duke because they have scholarship opportunities.”

Team officials contact recruited applicants as often as once a week, passing along word from their admissions liaison—often, according to Mazzoleni, a request for the student to produce a higher slate of SAT scores or semester grades. Yet while convincing the recruit not to commit elsewhere, they are simultaneously lobbying their admissions liaison to accept him. Most coaches express frustration at their inability to push admissions too far. “We don’t have much control in the process,” says Mazzoleni. “Ultimately, it’s their decision. Harvard is the first school I’ve been at where I can’t close on a kid. I don’t have that final say.” “I have fallen in love with candidates who didn’t have the academics to be here,” says men’s tennis head coach David Fish ’72, “and I’ve been stonewalled every time. Admissions will say, ‘Dave, if this person came here, he’d just be an athlete.’ I say, ‘He had a great forehand, but OK.’”

Yet while coaches don’t have as much sway as they would like, a spot on a recruiting list still represents a huge advantage in admissions. “We try to let Byerly know who could be a major contributor,” says freshman rowing coach Bill Manning. “We share with them more about their athletic background, what race results may be, competitions they’ve participated in, what might be happening around here that could make them a good fit. I equate it with a very strong counselor recommendation in someone’s file or a good music review of a tape.” While he says that if a candidate is “not competitive in the overall pool, there’s nothing that we can do, if they’re on the fence, we will certainly reiterate why we think highly of them, and that may help their application.”

Byerly Hall: Line of Defense

The two people responsible for breaking coaches’ hearts year after year are Fitzsimmons and Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73. Every fall and winter, they complete the Herculean task of rejecting nearly 19,000 students—a job made even tougher by the need to replenish one-quarter of the rosters of 41 competitive Division I sports teams each year.

No matter how good an athlete is, admissions officers will only compromise so much. The Ivy League uses a number called the Academic Index (AI), which Bowen says he invented, to measure applicants’ classroom qualifications. The index is the sum of three components: the average of students’ highest SAT I math and verbal scores divided by ten; the average of their three highest SAT II achievement test scores divided by ten; and their class rank converted to a 20-to-80 scale. A student who answered every question wrong on every SAT he took and placed last in his class would have an AI of 60; one with 800s on all his SATs and first in his class would score 240, and one with 500s on all his SAT’s and around the middle of his class would get 150.

According to McGrath Lewis, the median AI for all students Harvard accepts is 220, and the lowest it will take is around 185. “And you’d have to feel that 190 underrepresents their ability, preparation and potential,” she says. “If a kid looks like he can think with a pen, a 580 [SAT score] might underestimate him. If his dad is a house painter, he probably scores lower. If he’s a great football player with modest scores but good recommendations and grades, say, 550 and 580 and 10th in a class of 400, that’s a low AI, but he may have maxed out the opportunities he had. You wouldn’t take him unless you thought he could be really good at something, football. But that’s not a prima facie hopeless case.”

Sometimes, Fitzsimmons says, it’s hard to make this standard clear to coaches. “They accuse us of admitting their [ranked recruit] lists in reverse order,” he says. “It’s very frustrating for a number of our coaches sometimes,” adds Athletic Director Robert L. Scalise, “because we look around the league, and our opponents, many would have preferred to come to Harvard. But the wisdom of our admit office is that they are not suited to be in our class.” Even high-scoring recruits frequently get held up for the same reasons that non-athletes with perfect SAT scores find the reject pile. “Some coaches say I did an AI calculation on this [rejected] student and get frustrated,” McGrath Lewis says.

The next hurdle to surmount after AI consideration is what Harvard calls the “broken leg test.” It means exactly what it sounds like—how would a recruit take advantage of Harvard’s other opportunities if she were to break her leg. “Will this person be good in a seminar, with a professor, in a dining hall?” asks Fitzsimmons. “Will this person grow? We don’t sign people to contracts to play field hockey.” To find out if they, as McGrath Lewis says, will be “able to turn a corner,” admissions officials look for well-rounded candidates. “If a kid was his class vice president,” she says, “maybe he can work with people, so he’d do Phillips Brooks House or something. You look for people who can show some signs of personal flexibility. People decide they’ve done enough football.”

Giving Gladiators a Boost

Unsurprisingly, most Harvard coaches say that admissions officers at other Ivy League schools are not nearly so restrictive. “When kids are looking at Harvard and other Ivies, it’s different in what some of the Ivy schools are able to do for the kids in admissions that Harvard can’t do,” says baseball coach Walsh. The Ivy League uses the AI to keep wayward admissions officials in line. The first rule is the floor—raised from 169 to 171 this summer. If an applicant’s AI score is below 171 (equivalent to an 1140 SAT I, an average SAT II score just over 570 and grades in the top 40 percent of one’s class), he or she cannot be on a recruit list at any Ivy League school. Second, the median AI for all accepted recruited athletes must be within one standard deviation from the median for the class as a whole, which means that no more than half of accepted recruits can have an AI in the bottom 16 percent of the admitted class—not exactly the highest standard. But “the thinking,” says Fish, “is that if you put all that time into sports, there’s got to be some conscionable difference in your academics.”

It doesn’t take a perfect AI score to figure out how to exploit this system. By accepting a few students on recruit lists with very high AI’s, admissions officials can artificially raise the median, enabling them to also take a number of students with AI’s near the floor. Once a school has complied with Ivy regulations, it’s not obligated to offer the high-scoring students a spot on the teams that recruited them—the coaches are free to cut them if they wish. There’s a nickname for these academic all-stars conveniently slipped onto recruit lists—“boosters”—as well as the jocks who get in because of them: “gladiators.” Of course, no Harvard coach or admissions official will admit to any statistical balancing act, but many are eager to point fingers. “Some schools will be vocal about taking a lower-end AI person with a higher-end,” says men’s basketball head coach Frank Sullivan. Nonetheless, if you see a straight-A student around campus who played sports in high school and was recruited but never played a game for Harvard, you’re probably looking at a booster. As for the gladiators, you probably wouldn’t see them if they did exist—unless you too are a recruited athlete, and spend most of your time in the vicinity of Soldiers Field.

The most highly regulated sport is football. Rather than centering around a median, every Ivy League football team is capped at 30 recruits and broken down into four “bands,” ranges of AI scores determined by standard deviations from the median for the class. Each team is allowed no more than two recruits in the first band, no more than nine in the first and second band combined, no more than 22 in the first, second and third bands combined, and no more than 30 recruits total. Last year, the bands at Harvard, Yale and Princeton were 169 to 186 (first), 187 to 193 (second), 194 to 206 (third) and 207 and above (fourth), while Cornell’s first band consisted entirely of 169s and 170s and its second band ran from 171 to 178. “The lowest we’ve gone is 175, and it’s really 180-186,” Westerfield says. “And we only get two of those kids, they have to be unbelievable players. Penn might get two unbelievable players at 172, and we can’t get them because they can’t get in. And at other schools, the second band is 173 to 180, which would be first-banders for us. So they get nine kids who would be great, and we’d only get two.”

The only reason Harvard stays competitive, according to Westerfield, is that it’s Harvard. Three out of four students who get into Harvard and either Yale or Princeton choose Harvard, and it’s no different with high-scoring athletes. “Typically, if I want a kid, I get him,” Westerfield says. “I didn’t lose any kids last year. Our best player, [quarterback] Ryan Fitzpatrick [’05], is a fourth bander. You’ll get excellent football players in the fourth band.”

By the Book

William Bowen, now president of the Mellon Foundation, first criticized athletic admissions in the Ivy League three years ago when he published The Game of Life, co-written by Mellon colleague James Shulman. The book argues that college sports were too intense, detracting too much from students’ academic obligations. Fitzsimmons says Ivy League administrators and admissions officers took an immediate interest in the issues the book raised, and initiated negotiations to elevate academic standards for athletes. “We have been very vigorously asserting that we raise the expectations of academic excellence,” McGrath Lewis said last spring.

Yet the negotiations proved difficult. Since not all Ivy League schools are created academically equal, raising standards meant that schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton would gain a competitive edge over schools like Cornell and Brown. While still unable to compete with the so-called “Big Three” for higher-scoring recruits, those colleges would no longer be able to accept as many players with AI scores in the low 170s. Another popular initiative was capping the total number of recruited athletes, but this too could have unintended consequences—the fewer slots available, the greater the incentive to take gladiators. “One fear is that as it gets more regulated, coaches will start to feel like there is more of a slot mentality,” Scalise said last spring. “Selecting for the team versus selecting for the university, that’s the danger. It’s very hard to maintain quality, reduce numbers, raise standards, and decrease the intensity of the experience. You can’t do them all. It’s like building a building on budget, on time and with high quality.”

In June, the Council of Ivy Group Presidents, the governing body of the Ivy League, announced that it would raise the floor two points, from 169 to 171, rendering Cornell’s entire first band off-limits. It also established caps on the total number of recruited athletes each school could admit and extended the AI median requirement to all 33 Ivy sports. Cornell President Hunter R. Rawlings and Dartmouth President James Wright said that the changes reaffirmed the league’s commitment to its primary athletic doctrine, “representativeness:” “students who are recruited as potential athletes at each Ivy institution should be representative of that institution’s overall undergraduate student body, especially as the credentials of those student bodies continue to improve.”

Measuring Merit

Interpreted narrowly, “representativeness” means setting academic standards for recruited athletes that correlate to the qualifications of the class as a whole, a task theoretically accomplished by the AI system. But read more broadly, it calls the very purpose of college athletics into question. By definition, recruited athletes are not representative of the student body. Non-athletes don’t spend half their lives at college participating in competitive sports, don’t want to do so, and, for the most part, couldn’t if they tried. Moreover, according to Fitzsimmons, athletes “bring socioeconomic diversity”—a nice way to say that they tend to come from poorer backgrounds than their non-recruited classmates.

The AI system aims to achieve “representativeness” through a numbers game. But requiring half of college athletes to have achieved SAT scores and class ranks better than 16 percent of their class doesn’t mean that they are particularly representative of their peers, who lead a completely different lifestyle. Why should the racial, economic, or geographic diversity athletes offer be prized, while the one attribute that unites them—sports—be held against them as unrepresentative? Didn’t colleges just win a Supreme Court case preserving affirmative action by convincing justices of the value of diversity? Aren’t students from different backgrounds with different interests supposed to learn from each other? And if so, then why is the Ivy League so anxious to make sure that recruited athletes just like everybody else?

Taking recruited athletes in substantial numbers also corresponds with the pursuit of Harvard’s highest ideal of all: excellence. More than any other school in the country, Harvard seeks out excellence in every conceivable activity—it leans towards “well-lopsided” students, especially in the early action round. According to McGrath Lewis, every year, just 300 students are accepted for primarily academic reasons—which doesn’t mean they got a lot of A’s in high school, because everyone did; it means they uncovered the influence of a long-forgotten advisor to Queen Elizabeth I while researching a term paper. The remaining 1,700 or so accepted students certainly have top grades and SAT scores, but they also tend to demonstrate some uncommon excellence in one area or another. Just think of how many of your friends can be identified by a single phrase: a piano player; a Crimson writer; a field hockey stud. “Excellence, whatever form it is, is a surrogate for personal qualities,” says Fitzsimmons. And indeed, it’s personal qualities—discipline, teamwork, perseverance, etc.—that the most passionate supporters of athletics cite as the reason why athletes should be valued.

Yet if it were personal qualities, represented by excellence, that Harvard was after, it would pursue more and more highly specialized kids, with lower cutoff points on grades and SAT’s, until it became, in effect, a vocational school for every extracurricular activity under the sun, where students breezed through classes between rehearsals, practices or lab time—precisely the opposite of the liberal arts ideal it seeks to embody. It would, in short, abandon the broken leg test. It might also take a disproportionate number of community service-minded applicants on the grounds that they demonstrated uncommon personal qualities, contrary to administrators’ reminder to first-years that they are here primarily to learn and to participate in Harvard life.

When he established the concentration system, then-University President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, famously said, “Every educated man should know a little of everything and everything about something.” In measuring multiplicities of merit, and balancing the often-conflicting aims of representativeness, diversity, excellence, and the liberal arts, Byerly Hall tries to follow a similar principle: be uniquely excellent in something, and capable of anything. Such students are rare. But when you have the best-qualified applicant pool in the country, 20,000 deep, you take less than one in ten, and you get four of five you take, maybe you can have your cake and eat it too.