A recent report on athletics in Division III indicates that recruited athletes at highly selective colleges have lower GPAs than their teammates who are walk-ons, and significantly lower grades than non-athletes.
However, Director of Athletics Jeff Ward said that this is not the case at Bowdoin.
"The academic performance of those on teams is the same as those not on teams," he said in an interview.
The report is part of an ongoing study conducted by the College Sports Project, an initiative examining how sports programs can be structured so as to support schools' educational missions.
Around 80 Division III schools are participating in the study, including, with the exception of Amherst, all of the NESCAC colleges.
The GPA difference at highly selective schools between male recruited athletes and non-athletes was around 0.22 on a 4-point scale, while for those same female groups the difference was around 0.10. In other words, if the average GPA for male non-athletes was 3.0 at a particular school, then the average for male recruited athletes would be 2.78.
The report also showed that at highly selective schools the spread between athletes and non-athletes was largest in "highly recruited sports," such as basketball, football, lacrosse, soccer, ice hockey, field hockey, and volleyball.
In particular, male recruited athletes in highly recruited sports underperformed significantly, even according to data adjusted for demographic variables and high school education. Bowdoin was classified as a highly selective school.
Ward said that when he became the College's athletic director, a GPA gap did exist between athletes and non-athletes. Throughout the interview, Ward did not distinguish between recruited athletes and walk-ons.
"We used to just give coaches the grades of their...teams," he said, noting that coaches only saw their team's average GPA. "Coaches literally didn't know what the grades of their students were."
But when he changed the athletic department's procedure and began providing coaches with the grades of individual students, academic marks improved, Ward said.
"It has changed the nature of conversations that coaches have with students about academic performance," he said. "People often think it is a confrontational or negative conversation; it actually really isn't. It is another person saying, 'Things don't seem to be as going as well as they should; are you going to get support?'"
Ward singled out the Baldwin Program for Academic Development and the Quantitative Reasoning Program as resources that students turned to after conversations with coaches. As for when the GPA gap was eliminated, Ward did not specify.
"I honestly don't actually remember," he said, noting that it was "a while ago."
Ward said he could not provide GPA averages on a team-by-team basis or even for athletes in general, citing department policy.
Ward suggested that Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster could release information verifying that Bowdoin's teams bucked the trend. Foster, however, did not provide specific data to the Orient.
"I have discussed your question with those on campus who measure such things, and I can report back to you that Jeff Ward is correct: there is no meaningful difference between the GPAs of athletes and non-athletes at Bowdoin," he wrote in an e-mail to the Orient.
NESCAC member Williams College has published reports examining its athletic program, and one finding, in a 2009 report, is that "the gap in academic performance...has narrowed substantially overall and has essentially disappeared for female athletes and for male athletes in low-profile sports."
Another trend mentioned in the report is that there is a "difference in distribution of varsity athletes' majors and the majors chosen by non-athletes."
Males competing in highly recruited sports "predominantly" majored in the social sciences.
Asked if this was also the case at Bowdoin, Ward replied, "I can't comment on that."
But he did add, "I think there is a lot more distribution of what our students do than others might think."
The authors of the Williams report said that the change was likely due to rising admissions standards, as "varsity athletes' academic preparation for Williams College is increasingly similar to that of the rest of the student body."
However, like the College Sports Project study, the report found a persistent gap for male athletes in highly recruited sports.
Ward did not cite admissions standards as a reason as to why Bowdoin is an outlier in the College Sports Project study, stressing instead the impact of the support system in place.
"One thing where we are quite different are the conversations that I have with coaches about academic performance, and then the seriousness with which they work with individuals students," said Ward.
"I think we are much better at this than any institution I know. Every semester, I go over the grades of every kid on every team," said Ward. "We discuss how to support people to perform if we think they are not reaching their potential. The specificity of those conversations—I don't know of another school that does it to that degree."
So why aren't the athletic directors and deans of other colleges lining up outside Ward's office to learn how Bowdoin succeeded in alleviating the gap in scholastic performance?
"This is the first year that anybody ever asked me about it," he said.