A set number of students are endorsed by Bowdoin coaches each year even though their high school grades and test scores do not necessarily meet the standards of the average accepted Bowdoin students. Admissions gives many of these students’ application materials early reads to alert coaches to the likelihood that the student-athlete will be accepted.
This system is not confined to Brunswick, and for the last decade, the entire NESCAC has used a process to ensure that its sports events are perenially competitive, enabling uniformity in the 11 member institutions and establishing a mutual understanding of how rosters are filled.
“NESCAC institutions recognize the important role that athletics play on our campuses,” said Ashmead White Director of Athletics Tim Ryan. “With that, a system has been put in place to help ensure that institutions are able to develop athletic programs that are competitive within the conference.”
Discussion of the role of student-athletes in liberal arts academia is a common conversation topic, but this admissions process is widely unknown.
Though a set system has been in place since 2002 and admissions and athletic administrators are generally open to talking vaguely about it, access to the specific information remains guarded and there are few means through which laypeople can find explanations. Multiple Bowdoin coaches declined to comment to the Orient on the specifics of the process, and according to Ryan, school policy dictates that numbers not be distributed publicly.
The NESCAC’s highly regulated recruitment system was first widely revealed in a December 2005 New York Times article featuring Amherst’s dean of admissions and financial aid, Thomas Parker.
“The real danger was in not acknowledging that we give preferential treatment to athletes,” said Parker in the article. “It engendered a corrosive cynicism. When it was on the table exactly what we do, it wasn’t as bad as some faculty thought.”
History of new guidelines
Parker was integral in formulating the current NESCAC-wide system in the early 2000s. When he arrived at Amherst in 1999 from Williams—where he had held the same position—the conference’s recruiting was very different from what it is now.
“There was virtually no regulation or oversight of the relationship between admissions offices and the athletic departments,” he said in an interview with the Orient. He explained that Williams’ and Amherst’s presidents were both interested in re-evaluating the number of recruited athletes and their academic calibers.
“Amherst and Williams lined our athletes up and said, ‘We’re virtually identical schools academically, so our athletes should be identical,’” said Parker.
Implementing these new regulations conference-wide, however, was an arduous process. First, Amherst and Williams brought in Wesleyan, the third member school of the NESCAC’s so-called “Little Three.” Then the topic of these schools’ recruiting caps came up at a meeting of NESCAC presidents, who asked for admissions representatives from the whole conference to collaborate on reformulating the system. By 2002, a group of admissions deans had successfully modified the nascent system of the Little Three to be uniform across the league.
As explained in Bowdoin’s 2006 reaccreditation self-survey, the NESCAC’s target-based athletic admissions model aimed to “reduce the number of recruited athletes admitted…and raise the academic profile of athletes.” The overall volume and competition of D-III sports had increased significantly in the past few decades, which at Bowdoin brought about “legitimate questions about the opportunity costs of admitting athletes to fill 31 teams at the expense of other highly qualified applicants in the Bowdoin pool.”
The plan in action
According to Parker, each NESCAC institution is allowed a maximum of 14 recruits for having a football team, with an additional two per remaining varsity sport. He said that every NESCAC school currently subscribes to the process. For Amherst, that number is 66 recruits, or athletic factors (AFs).
“In those 66 cases, the athletic input controls the decision,” said Parker. “You have to say that in that group of 66 students, preference was given to them in the process, no question about it.”
Parker said that for teams that do not compete at the D-III level, an extra AF recruit spot is added every other year in order to attract higher caliber athletes. For instance, Bowdoin’s 31 varsity teams factor into an allotted total, but he noted that a sport like nordic skiing, which competes outside of the NESCAC at the D-I level, is awarded further support. Other examples include Trinity’s squash and Colby’s alpine skiing teams.
Following Parker’s formula, the number of allotted recruits at Bowdoin would be around 75, or about 15 percent of the incoming class. An Orient article last spring cited this number at 77, based on a speech by President Barry Mills at a faculty meeting, but further investigation has not been able to confirm this number.
Those recruiting caps of supported athletes are then subdivided into “bands”—sometimes referred to as slots—which separate recruits academically based on how they compare to the averaged statistics of accepted students. Students in the B band have scores slightly below the averages, while C-band recruits are lower. Parker said that schools cannot consider prospective student-athletes whose numbers would make them fall below the C band’s lower boundary. Students whose scores place them well within the averages fall into the A band, but these individuals are not factored into the athletic support numbers.
AFs are considered those prospective student-athletes in the B and C bands, though Parker noted “there’s only a very limited number of C bands that each school can take.”
At Bowdoin, an agreement dictates that the admissions and athletic departments “don’t talk about numbers or qualifications related to those bands externally,” according to Ryan.
As a point of comparison, Parker said in the 2005 New York Times article that the mean SAT score for that year’s freshman class was a 1442. The lowest band was for “students with strong high school records in challenging courses and with scores of 1250 to 1310 on the two-part College Board exam. The next-highest band required a very strong record and course load and SAT scores from 1320 to 1430.”
“At Amherst,” the article continued, “the mean SAT score for athletes filling slots was 60 to 75 points below the mean for the current freshman class.”
Once the admissions deans fully understood the differentiation between the bands based on academic achievement, “we had to line up the other schools, which turned out to be a pretty big task,” Parker said.
Implementing the numbering system wasn’t inherently difficult; the challenge came in identifying where cut-offs for B and C bands occur across various institutions.
Some member institutions required no testing, some required subject tests, and there were significant gaps in average scores. After a few years, the deans standardized a system with modified test score and GPA averages depending on the means of each college’s student body.
This breakdown of banding isn’t set in stone. In 2005 Amherst admitted 19 C-band recruits, but Parker said that number is now down to 12. Additionally, the academic qualifications for the lower band recruits has been raised due to heightened academic competitiveness in admissions.
“But we’ve done that league-wide,” he added. “We’re not going to do anything unilaterally.”
“Since we’ve become a playing conference, recruiting and schools trying to identify and attract and have people enroll at their schools is as intense as I’ve seen it since I started here 30 years ago,” said men’s hockey head coach Terry Meagher. “It’s always been a part of what we do—for this program we’ve always recruited very extensively and we’ve had a thorough model—but across the board it’s as competitive as I’ve ever seen it.”
It would be impossible to field nearly any team using just two recruits per year, which is why the rest of the rosters are composed of A-band students no different academically from the other admitted students, who, said Parker, “would have made it under any conditions.”
“We hope that a few others are going to be able to get in on their own because we have to do it that way, but I think in general it works out,” said women’s soccer head coach Brianne Weaver.
“We have a limited number of people who we can talk to the admissions office about,” said football head coach Dave Caputi. “Some kids require a little more political capital than others—you have to pick and choose your battles. That’s constant across all sports. In a given year coaches may lobby a little higher for a really good player who’s in a position of high need.”
Dividing the support
Just because each NESCAC institution may use a certain number of spots each year on athletic recruits with somewhat lower academic pedigrees, the way in which schools do this varies.
Though the overall allotment is based off an equal number of admittees per sport, each team does not use exactly two spots per season. Some coaches will sacrifice a spot one year for an extra recruit the next year. And depending on specific NESCAC schools’ preferences and traditions, some teams will consistently support more athletes in admissions than others.
“You want to adjust it according to the priorities [of each school],” said Parker. “There are probably some NESCAC schools that emphasize one sport over another for reasons of tradition or something else.”
Sailing coach Frank Pizzo said he understands that his program doesn’t hold as much gravitas as a sport like football or hockey, but recruits accordingly.
“We’re a sports team that doesn’t have a whole lot of recruiting pull,” he said. “I rely on a lot of kids to whom I’m like, ‘Hey, if you can get in through admissions, we’d love to have you.’”
Women’s rugby coach MaryBeth Mathews acknowledged a similar reliance on athletes admitted without a coach’s endorsement.
“I have a very limited amount of support,” she said. “One because it’s a participation sport that offers the non-recruited athletes a chance to play, but until other NESCAC women’s programs are varsity, the College doesn’t see the need.”
But students involved in less-supported athletic programs do understand the system’s engendering of inequitable support is “probably fair,” according to men’s swim captain Linc Rhodes ’14. Some teams, he said, “probably have a little more pull of people they can get in, but they’re also a way bigger influence on campus and they’re a bigger draw to people and alumni so they’re granted that.”
Softball pitcher Julia Geaumont ’16, who was named Gatorade Player of the Year—the top high school player—in Maine as a senior at nearby Saco’s Thornton Academy, still thinks it’s less than ideal.
“It’s kind of hard, looking at how some team gets a few more spots so maybe they can be a little bit better,” she said. “But, I mean, I think you’re going to find that any place.”
Beyond academic distinctions
For those prospective students who fall above the B band—whose scores are indistinguishable from the average student at a given college—a coach can still be supportive in admissions.
However, this support will not be as strong, and in the words of Parker, “Would be no more helpful than the symphony director or the head of the studio art department. There’s a point at all the NESCAC schools when you can’t make any more academic distinctions because everybody is so good.”
Parker said that these students are referred to as non-athletic factors (NAFs). Just like students applying to Bowdoin with an interest in intercollegiate athletics, many students apply here with plans to participate in other extracurricular activities.
“You’re not going to come here and just be an athlete, you’re going to be involved in the theater or the arts or the newspaper,” said Ryan. “And that’s as important, if not more important, than your athletic ability.”
When choosing between so many highly-qualified A-band applicants, each student’s non-academic strengths are carefully considered to figure out how they could best fit at the school. At this point, some students will be recognized in admissions by their coaches for a vote of confidence, and others may be identified by musical directors or other extracurricular leaders.
But not having a conference-wide system in place for evaluating these activities makes it less clear as to how different schools support these types of students. Parker said that athletics is the most uniform because any NESCAC school knows or can easily find out what the ten other schools are doing, thanks to the structured process already in place for recruiting athletes.
Part two: an investigation of the recruiting timeline, including a look at “early reads” in admissions and the benefits of the athletic recruiting visit. In two weeks: examining the academic performance of athletes once they get to Bowdoin and being a student-athlete at the College.