EVER since the announcement last year that Columbia lowered its academic admission standards to enhance the performance of its hapless football team, critics have denounced the policy as a movement away from the student-athlete ideal the Ivy League attempts to promote.
These critics are correct to support a balance between athletics and academics. But the real villain is neither the Columbia admissions office nor the athletic department. It is the Ivy League's policy of applying a different admission standard to student-athletes than to other applicants. In fact, Columbia's policy does more to equalize admissions for all students than it does to set lower standards for athletes.
The Ivy League discriminates against athletes, by applying to them--and only them--excessively rigid admission standards. The current admissions policy fails to predict college performance and sometimes holds back capable students. It simply allows the Ivy League to maintain the false appearance of strict academic standards for athletes on the way in, despite the concessions the schools give to athletes who do not uphold the academic end of the bargain once they are here.
The current method of determining whether a high-school recruit is qualified to attend college in the Ivy League is through the Academic Index (AI)--which converts class rank, SAT scores and grades into a sum which is supposed to reflect a student's academic aptitude. If a score is above the AI cutoff point--161--the athlete is qualified for admission. If the score falls short, even by a single point, then the athlete is not.
The index has two problems--it is inflexible, and it is applied to only athletes.
Studies have shown that SAT scores above a certain point bear little correlation to actual academic success in college. That is why colleges do not base their general admission policies solely on board scores. Class rank, more a function of the size and caliber of the student's high school than the student's aptitude, is only one small factor into the general admissions process.
The final part of the index, grades, is a more effective measure, but it also subject to occasional flaws. Superior students are sometimes inept in a single subject, which pulls down their overall grade point average; this human factor is often accounted for by understanding admissions officers.
Although the index combines factors which are important in the general admissions process, by doing so rigidly, it fails to take into account individual circumstances and treat atheletes as other students are treated--as individuals.
Talented musicians whose credentials fall below 161 on the AI can still be admitted to an Ivy League school. Talented linebackers can't.
In interviews, Brown basketball coach Mike Cingiser has told of student-athletes he tried to recruit who were denied admission because of the AI, but would have gotten into Brown if they hadn't played a sport well.
If some students are admitted to Ivy League schools because of their unique talents and personalities, why should athletes be held to a different standard than musicians, actors, writers and artists--all of whom can make different but equally important contributions to the college community?
By adhering to excessively rigid admission policies when dealing with athletes, schools are guilty of discrimination. They view athletes as a group by ensuring that they pass a minimum standard. Yet no other group on campus is filtered through such an index.
Discrimination is not the only detriment of the admission policy. The policy also breeds hypocrisy.
By maintaining a seemingly strict admissions policy for athletes, schools don't have to worry as much about checking up on how those athletes are performing once they are admitted. As a result, the student-athletes who fail to meet the academic standards are allowed to keep playing and winning--and graduate.
These athletes can get in because they score above 161 on the AI, but it is clear that they are not maintaining the balance between academics and athletics that the Ivy League stands for.
In the era of quasi-pro athletic programs in many major schools, it is important that the Ivy League uphold the reputation of student-athletes who are both students and athletes. Critics of the change in Columbia's program were afraid that the Ivy League would start to move in the direction of the Southwest Conference and the Big Ten, which field teams first, and colleges second.
This year's Columbia Lions, a squad which includes athletes who were admitted under the new policy, seem as unable to roar as the previous few teams. Columbia has jumped out to a 0-2 start, extending its consecutive-game losing streak to 43. Even with the added help, the Lions may not be ready to win.
But by relaxing the rigidity of its index, Columbia moved closer to maintaining the balance between academics and athletics. Because of the intense scrutiny the change has come under, Columbia will be pressured to ensure that the athletes who are admitted make the grade.
The student-athletes at Columbia who fall short academically will stop representing Columbia on the playing fields. The student-athletes at other Ivy schools--including Harvard--who fall short will probably be able to continue playing through the generosity of the various Academic Boards.
And it will be done in the name of a successful sports program.