Athletic Recruitment at Elite Colleges Skews Wealthy and White
Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
April 27, 2023
With each passing year, gaining admission to the nation’s most elite private colleges becomes increasingly difficult — unless you’re an athlete.
As acceptance rates plummet below 5% at the top schools, recruited athletes have it far easier. For its class of 2027, Harvard admitted 3.4% of applicants. For athletes recruited by Harvard, acceptance rates can run as high as 83%.
What’s more, these athletes skew white and wealthy, much like legacy admits. Yet athletic recruitment doesn’t attract the same level of scrutiny as legacy admissions, largely flying under the public consciousness radar.
That could change come June or July when the Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision banning race-conscious admissions. If elite colleges struggle to maintain diversity, can they continue to justify a practice that so clearly runs counter to that goal?
Sports at Elite Colleges Lack Diversity
A casual sports fan might assume athletics helps colleges achieve diversity goals, but the obverse is true.
“If you’re only paying attention to college sports during March Madness or the college football season, you would have a very skewed view of who is the average athlete,” Jayson Weingarten, a senior consultant with Ivy Coach and a former admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania, told BestColleges.
Kirsten Hextrum, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, estimated in 2020 that about 72% of women college athletes and 64% of men college athletes were white. However, those figures only account for scholarship athletes, Hextrum pointed out in a conversation with WBUR, and “disguises the fact that the remaining 38 sports that are sponsored by the NCAA are predominantly played by white and middle-class athletes.”
The figures for elite private colleges skew in that direction even more. Saahil Desai, writing in The Atlantic, notes that 65% of domestic Ivy League athletes were white as of 2018, as were 79% of athletes among schools in Division III’s New England Small College Athletic Conference, which features institutions such as Amherst College, Williams College, Middlebury College, and Wesleyan University.
Just over 59% of the U.S. population is white and not Hispanic or Latino/a.
Wealthy colleges in conferences such as these field teams across a wide array of sports most fans will never watch on ESPN. Ask these fans which university features the largest intercollegiate athletics program in terms of the total number of sports offered. The answer will likely be an SEC or Big Ten school.
But it’s Harvard, with 42 sports teams. By comparison, the University of Massachusetts fields exactly half that total.
Harvard’s lineup, similar to other Ivies, includes crew, squash, water polo, and fencing — “country-club sports,” as Desai dubs them.
Among Harvard’s class of 2022, 46.3% of recruited athletes came from families with household incomes of $250,000 or higher, according to Desai. And among athletes recruited for the university’s class of 2025, 83% were white.
“These are not sports that are…predominantly full of individuals from a lower socioeconomic status or people from historically underrepresented groups,” Weingarten said. “These are very white sports, privileged sports predominantly played by those who have grown up playing them and can afford it.”
In fact, of the 232 Division I crew athletes in 2017, zero were black.
Putting a Fist on the Admissions Scale
So we know athletes at elite colleges tend to be white and come from families within the upper socioeconomic strata. What we also know is that they receive a fairly hefty bump in the admissions process.
How much of a bump? Jeffrey Selingo, author of “Who Gets In And Why,” an inside look at college admissions, recently said on the “Sports Scholarship Stories” podcast that recruited athletes at elite colleges don’t receive just a thumb on the scale. They get the entire fist.
“If you have that hook of being an athlete, it’s one of the top hooks now,” he said. “It’s a better hook than being a legacy. It’s a better hook than almost anything out there.”
“I would think that if you are the son or daughter of a mega-donor, that might be a little bit more of a fist on the scale,” he said. “But certainly no one in their right mind could say that being a recruited athlete is not on the Mount Rushmore of [admissions advantages].”
Division III schools, in particular, rely on athletes to fill enrollment spots. And because D-III schools don’t offer athletic scholarships, these athletes represent tuition dollars.
Given the wide array of sports offered at these elite private schools, athletes take up a relatively large number of admissions slots. At Amherst College, for example, about 36% of students are athletes. By comparison, that figure at the University of Alabama is 2%.
Participation rates at other elite schools fall somewhere in between. A recent Davidson College class consisted of 25% recruited athletes. Yale averages around 13%, and Harvard’s class of 2020 had 10%.
A 2018 Harvard Crimson article examined how that “fist on the scale” affected admissions rates for recruited athletes at Harvard. All Harvard applicants are rated on a scale of 1-6, with 1 being the highest. Athletes who received a 1 or a 2 had an acceptance rate of 83%, compared to 16% of non-athletes. Those rated a 4 were accepted at a rate of 70.5%, almost 1,000% greater than the rate for non-athletes, at .076%.
Many of these athletic recruits apply early, inflating early decision and early action acceptance rates.
“Most schools that have early programs are encouraging their recruited athletes to apply in those early rounds,” Weingarten said.
Brown University, for example, reserves more than 220 spots for recruited athletes. For the university’s class of 2021, 28.7% of the early decision offers went to athletes.
Dartmouth is quite transparent about its process.
“Keep in mind that the published higher percentage of applicants accepted early is somewhat misleading because it includes recruited Division I athletes,” the college’s website notes.
Students across the board who apply early — not just athletes — tend to come from wealthier families, notes a 2021 report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
“That the recruited athletes are chosen early on is seemingly mundane,” Desai concludes, “but it warps the process in favor of wealthier kids who can send in early-decision applications to selective schools without fretting about the size of the financial-aid package they’ll receive.”
Affirmative Action for the Wealthy
Desai’s Atlantic article suggests college sports constitute “affirmative action for rich white students.”
Given that the “real” affirmative action — involving race-based preferences — may be deemed unconstitutional within a few months, will elite colleges continue justifying preferential athletic recruitment practices that undermine efforts to promote diversity?
“People are complaining about minority students,” Michele Hernandez Bayliss, a college admissions counselor and a former assistant admissions dean at Dartmouth College, told Desai for his Atlantic article. “But athletes are taking up almost a fifth of the class [at Harvard], and they’re lowering the academic standards quite a bit.”
How much is “quite a bit”? In Harvard’s entering class of 2025, recruited athletes had an average SAT score of 1397, compared to 1501 for non-athletes. That’s a 7% difference.
The Ivies do use an “academic index” to ensure athletes meet a minimum standard of achievement to be eligible for admission.
And to be fair, recruited athletes at selective colleges are thoroughly vetted in the admissions process and accepted (or rejected) by the admissions office, not by coaches. It’s a holistic process that considers athletic achievement as one characteristic among many, Weingarten explained.
“Every student is admitted for a reason,” he said. “Some students are admitted because they can shoot 90% from the free throw line. Other students are admitted because they can kick a field from 70 yards away. … We’ve decided as a society that athletic ability is a legitimate, bona fide reason to admit someone.”
Still, college admissions remains a zero-sum game, especially for elite colleges that doggedly refuse to expand enrollments. Every seat taken by an athlete results in one fewer for other students. As these colleges potentially search for ways to maintain diversity in a post-affirmative action world — where race cannot be considered as one characteristic among many — athletic recruitment, much like legacy admissions, will run counter to those efforts.
Bracing for what seems like an inevitable SCOTUS decision, colleges are scrambling to revamp admissions policies and practices. How such changes will affect athletic recruitment remains to be seen.
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