What Do Selective Colleges Look for in an Applicant? More Hooks (page 2)
Yet another important institutional priority or hook is outstanding athletic ability. Many selective colleges have active athletics programs (Harvard, for example, has forty-one varsity teams) that they see as integral to the college experience. The student body wants the school’s teams to win. So does the development office, whose fundraising success may rise and fall along with teams’ win-loss record. Most selective colleges allow coaches to identify a limited number of athletes they strongly support for admission. We define a recruited athlete as one who earns a spot on the coach’s final list for admissions purposes. The more important the sport at a college, the greater the weight of a coach’s recommendations for admission. For basketball and football, the two highest-profile sports on most campuses, the coach’s recommendation counts for a lot. Although some recruited athletes have fine academic records that would earn them admission independent of their special talent, some do not.
The kids who get in on sports, they’re good enough students to go there and hang in there, but they’re not always students who were good enough to have gotten there on academics alone. - High school senior whounderstands the athletic hook
In Reclaiming the Game, William Bowen, former president of Princeton University, and his associate Sarah Levin, examined the role of athletic recruiting in the admissions process at Ivy League universities and selective liberal arts colleges. They present convincing data showing that some recruited athletes are only marginally qualified to attend the college that recruited them and that as a group, recruited athletes tend to underperform in college. Underperforming means that students do less well academically than would be predicted by their precollege academic record.
What Is the Admissions Advantage for Athletes?
Bowen and Levin present data showing what they call the “admissions advantage” for athletes at Ivy League colleges—the difference between the average admission probability for a recruited athlete and the average admission probability for any other applicant after controlling for differences in academic records. The difference for male and female athletes was 51 percent and 56 percent, respectively. Since the average probability of admission in the Ivy League was around 15 percent, they reasoned that a boost of 51 percentage points meant that a typical male athletic recruit had an admission probability of 66 percent (the 15 percent base rate for everyone added to the 51 percent athletic advantage). The average male recruited athlete, then, had four times the chance of being admitted to an Ivy League college than a male student with a comparable academic record who was not a recruited athlete and had no other hooks.
The admissions advantage for underrepresented minorities and legacies, calculated in the same manner, turned out to be much smaller. Using the same Ivy League data set, Bowen and Levin report that the admissions advantage for underrepresented men and women was 26 percent and 31 percent, respectively. For male and female legacies, the respective admissions advantages were 26 percent and 28 percent. Although the Bowen and Levin data are now ten years old, experienced counselors believe that their conclusions generally hold today as well. Thus, exceptional athletic ability may be the strongest hook of all at most selective colleges, aside, perhaps, from development, where the data are not public.
Socioeconomic and Geographic Diversity
Most selective colleges are eager to assemble a freshman class from a wide variety of backgrounds. Colleges are particularly interested in identifying students who are the first in their families to attend college and have succeeded against the odds. These are often called “first-generation” students. High school students from disadvantaged backgrounds who do well in school despite the challenges of low income or poor schools, or both, are likely to be highly motivated, successful college students.
Colleges are becoming increasingly aware of the need to actively seek out and support such students, since they have less access to information about college and may not even apply to selective colleges. In 2004, Harvard University made national headlines by announcing a change in its financial aid policy so that families with annual incomes of $40,000 or less would no longer be expected to contribute to the cost of attendance. “We want to send the strongest possible message that Harvard is open to talented students from all economic backgrounds,” said President Lawrence Summers at that time. Since then, Harvard has raised the income ceiling to $60,000, and several other well-endowed colleges, including Dartmouth College, Princeton University, and Stanford University, have made similar changes to their financial aid policies.
Geographical diversity is another variable that many colleges consider in selecting their freshman class, since geographical diversity often correlates with diversity of life experience. Students who come from underrepresented parts of the country can find themselves at an advantage when it comes to admission to a selective college. But the definition of underrepresented region is relative; it depends in part on the college in question. Although few students from Nevada may apply to Colby College in Maine, Pitzer College in California is likely to have an ample supply from which to choose. Talented students from sparsely populated Wyoming or rural Mississippi are in short supply everywhere. Major exceptions to the geographic diversity advantage are selective public institutions such as the University of Texas, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of California, Berkeley. In these cases, students from other states are held to higher standards for admission.
It is interesting that while many private colleges seek geographic diversity in their student body, they may also give a small preference to students from their own local area in an effort to build goodwill with the community. Tufts University, Duke University, and Northeastern University are among those that acknowledge this kind of preference.
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