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Taking on the AI

By David Freed and Alexander Koenig, Crimson Staff Writers

Athletes and coaches often talk about not letting numbers define them. While statistics tell part of the story, sports cannot be reduced to field goal percentages and batting averages. Recruiters often look beyond the numbers to find blossoming talent; player intangibles can balance out a poor statistical year. The impetus to avoid an entire year or career of work being boiled down to a series of numbers is understandable. However, in the Ivy League recruiting process, a single number as simple as it is misunderstood can make or break a student-athlete’s collegiate future: the Academic Index.

The Academic Index, or AI, is a combination of a student’s class rank and SAT scores typically calculated for seniors. Every prospective Ivy League student is assigned a number, which ranges from 60 to 240—a perfect score. The AI is divided into three categories. While the first two reflect SAT I and SAT II scores, the third is a combination of class rank and GPA adjusted on the same 20 to 80 scale to round out the score. Although the league does not disclose its data, the New York Times estimated that the average student at an Ivy League institution has an AI around 220, with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton boasting slightly higher averages than their other Ancient Eight counterparts.

“The AI does not make decisions for us,” Director of Admissions Marlyn E. McGrath-Lewis ’70-’73 said in an e-mail. “It provides a way to gauge how each Ivy institution does in enrolling ‘representative’ students who are recruited athletes. The league created the AI exactly for that purpose.”

Ivy League rules dictate that no athletic department is permitted to have an average AI among its student-athletes more than one standard deviation below the average for non-athlete enrollees in a given class. This limits the pool of potential recruited athletes but also ensures that the Ivy League can maintain its point of pride: having student-athletes who “annually compile the country’s best records in the NCAA Academic Performance Ratings,” as per the league website.

But not everything about the AI is as clear-cut as how it is calculated.


During their recruiting process, Ivy League coaches face unique difficulties at each turn. According to Ivy League policy, coaches are unable to offer athletic scholarships to prospective student-athletes. In football, the Ancient Eight’s ban on postseason competition is an impediment to recruiting; without a major television network, the league as a whole cannot promise athletes the national television exposure other conferences can.

Much more constraining are the academic standards of the member institutions. The Ivy League has set a minimum AI of 176 for any student-athlete offered admission, corresponding roughly to a 3.0 GPA and an 1140 out of 1600 on the SAT I. However, each team’s AI must remain within one standard deviation (estimated to be between 12-16 points) of the average AI for the entire student body. Given that no Ivy League institution has an average AI below 200, no athletic program in the Ancient Eight approaches that 176 threshold.

According to The New York Times, nationally an average student-athlete has an AI of 150—three or four standard deviations below the typical Ivy League sports team average. The AI limits the pool of potential recruits from the start, allowing—or forcing—coaches to focus their efforts on targeting high-achieving students.

“[The AI] is an important factor to take into consideration,” Yale men’s basketball coach James Jones said. “It doesn’t mean much in terms of admissions, but for recruiting we have got to make sure we fit in the floor and ceiling.”

Every team must be within one standard deviation of the campus AI, but beyond that individual athletes are classified into four “bands” representing distance from the campus mean. Recruits range from Band 1, with AIs above the campus mean, to Band 4, with an AI score more than two standard deviations below the campus mean. Depending on the size of a recruiting class, coaches can have more or less latitude to recruit players with a greater spectrum of AI scores, using high scores to buoy a team average.


Once a coach decides on a player, there is no guarantee that the admissions office will offer a spot to the recruit. Coaches can provide verbal commitments to their recruits but ultimately must rely on relationships developed with the admissions office to secure a player’s spot.

Coaches at Harvard work with admissions officers like McGrath in clearing potential recruits before they apply to the University. Because of the presence of the minimum AI, as well as the individual team requirements, a recruit’s academic and athletic profiles are considered together. Harvard men’s tennis coach David Fish ’72 said that when he targets potential athletes, he considers them holistically. A graduate of Harvard himself, Fish said that he looks for students who will thrive in the competitive and rigorous academic environment.

“Our process is such that we are already looking for people who are going to be comfortable and a credit to Harvard,” Fish said. “Harvard’s academic mean is so high, the standard is so high that you want students there who have a special gift. You want those people to be comfortable in this environment. We use [the AI] because the Ivies have all agreed to do it, but we want to admit students in the same way that other students are looked at.”

From the perspective of an admissions officer, a recruited athlete must satisfy the same standards as the rest of the class. Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 uses what he calls

“the broken leg test” to evaluate prospective student-athletes, who, when admitted, enroll at much higher rates than the average admitted student. According to an article in The Daily Princetonian, athletes typically enroll at a 92-94 percent rate, 35 percent higher than Princeton’s general enrollment rate.

“Say a student who happens to be an athlete or a dancer breaks his or her leg in five places and can never participate, is this still a good admission?” Fitzsimmons said he and the admissions committee ask themselves. “Will the person be able to take the energy, the drive, the commitment that went into becoming a great dancer or a great athlete, or whatever else it may have been, and turn that into something positive?”

Likewise, both Jones and Fish said that the AI plays only a small part in how coaches and admissions officers assess potential students. If the Academic Index didn’t exist, Jones said, the admissions process would change little.

“[The AI] is something we use to make sure we get the best student-athletes that we can, but a student’s writing samples, what they’ve done in high school, how they perform in their interview...all these things are more important to admissions than the AI,” Jones said.

“It’s a guideline we use, but it isn’t something we live or die by,” Fish added.


A recruit’s career does not end at admission, however. The Academic Index has no direct bearing on athletic ability and is no harbinger of future success. In a 2011 interview with The New York Times, Jones commented that it was possible to artificially adjust the AI of individual teams simply by changing the members on a squad’s bench.

“You can make your number whatever you want by recruiting kids just for their high AI, and who cares if they play?” Jones said at the time. “It is done. Not here at Yale, but it is done.”

Though the AI, like most recruiting guidelines, opens itself up to potential loopholes, there is, in theory, a self-correcting mechanism because unqualified students are unable to keep up academically.

When students arrive at Harvard, with higher academic expectations for its students, they are expected to succeed in a number of ways no matter the circmstances of their admissions. Scheduling that places the majority of athletic events—such as all Ancient Eight basketball games—on the weekends means that athletes rarely can excuse themselves from class and are held to the same standard as their peers.

“[The admissions committee is] trying to invest in futures and the skills and character traits they see in those people,” Fish said. “[If there] is an exception from the numerical is a special kid with special leadership abilities. I think it’s a credit to their judgment; they make terrific choices.”

Even before they arrive on college campuses, the academic futures of student-athletes are already given substantial attention. High school and preparatory academy athletic departments across the country closely monitor their athletes’ scholastic pursuits, preparing them for an ever more rigorous college admissions process.

Michael Potempa, the Athletic Director at Montverde Academy—a school that boasts current and former Harvard men’s basketball players, including current sophomore forward Steve Moundou-Missi, as alumni—noted that his school, like fellow Ivy feeders Harvard-Westlake and Northfield Mount Hermon, among others, takes pride in sending student-athletes to Ivy League institutions. Potempa credits the school’s practices with much of the success.

“One of the things we try to instill in them here is that we have a very similar setup as college athletic programs,” Potempa said. “The expectations [we have for our students] are high. [We have] weekly grade reports [and] study halls for athletes who need a certain arrangement with quiet monitoring in the library with a coaching staff.”

Though performance on the field can be given more attention than performance in the classroom, institutions like the AI allow for an expanded view of what being a successful student-athlete means. Athletic and academic success can be a vicious tradeoff; stories of illiterate professional athletes like NFL All-Pro defensive end Dexter Manley demonstrate that, in pursuit of athletic success, academics can be lost in the shuffle.

In the Ivy League—a conference known more for its Nobel Prizes than Heisman Trophies—the AI has helped preserve the league’s primary academic goals. Recently, Jones adds, this has not prevented on-court success.

“Our league has done quite well basketball-wise recently,” Jones said. “Cornell going to the Sweet 16, Harvard making the second round; clearly something is working.”

—Staff writer Alexander Koenig can be reached at

—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @CrimsonDPFreed.

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College AdministrationAdmissionsDepartment of AthleticsEarly AdmissionsCommencement 2013Sports Comm Features