A 64-page analysis on admissions trends for athletes applying to Bowdoin and their subsequent academic performance as students at the College was issued 27 years ago next month.

The Admissions and Athletics Report (or Barker Report, as it is more commonly known) was written in 1987 by a committee chaired by mathematics professor William Barker and featuring nine other members including then Director of Admissions William Mason, then Assistant Director of Athletics John Cullen and student Gerald Chertavian ’87. It was conducted in part because of the College’s Pierce Commission Report, which, in 1975, requested that the performance of students admitted into Bowdoin primarily because of athletic ability be monitored periodically.

While a great deal has changed regarding athlete admissions and academics since 1987, some of the report’s basic tenets remain true.


The Barker report states, “Heavy recruitment and emphasis on finding athletic talent in the applicant pool can [make] teams become less accessible to students who have little or no previous training in the sport.” It goes on to say that “such ‘walk-ons’ are thus, to a large degree, excluded from intercollegiate sports because the teams are becoming filled with so many ‘rated athletes.’”

Though it is not abundantly common, some students each year try out for teams having had no prior contact with coaches. 

Most athletes, however, have had some level of communication with coaches before college to express interest in playing on their team, whether they were supported in the admissions process or not.

“It’s not generally known by the students which of our team members are recruited and which are walk-ons,” said track’s head coach Peter Slovenski. “We don’t care if they were recruited or not. I’ve seen a few un-recruited athletes earn All-American honors in college, and we’ve also had some highly recruited students who were disappointing.”

“Whether you’re actively recruited by a coach or you arrive the first day of practice, you’re going to be given the same opportunity to participate in that program,” added Ashmead White Director of Athletics Tim Ryan.

Each sport has a slightly different policy toward walking on. Women’s soccer has an open tryout every year to which head coach Brianne Weaver invites both recruited and walk-on athletes. But, she said, “We are committed to those who we recruit. We don’t want to go out to someone we recruited and say, ‘Sorry, you’re actually not good enough.’”

Football Head Coach Dave Caputi said that while some students may walk on to the team, these individuals have typically had a relationship with the coaches during their application process and are “on our radar.”

Similarly, Men’s Hockey Head Hoach Terry Meagher said that “there’s not many true walk-ons who just show up and you don’t know who they are. Through correspondence, watching them play or whatever, we usually have a pretty good idea” about the people who come out for the team. “The ones who basically walk on have reached out to us after they’ve made a decision to come to Bowdoin, so we know who they are before they show up.”

However, Meagher said that “if someone just walked into my door on September 1 when they arrived here and they wanted to try out for the team, we would allow that.”

Women’s Rugby Head Coach MaryBeth Mathews said that because of the nature of her sport, she fields her roster almost entirely from walk-on athletes who come to the team after seeing posters, going to information sessions, and talking to current players.

“Even that gal who’s never played a sport before, there’s a spot for her on the team,” Mathews said. “Walk-ons? Have at it, bring ’em, I need ’em.”

Sailing head coach Frank Pizzo said he also relies on walk-ons for a large part of his roster.
“They don’t need to have any experience, and it’s almost better if they have none rather than having a little because we want to team them the right way. We don’t have a set tryout and we don’t have cuts, but if kids miss the first few days of practice, it won’t work out,” he said.

A team’s best athletes are not necessarily the students who gained admissions support for that sport.

“We do have a number of recruited athletes who were then cut and joined rugby, who were burned out and joined, or [who are] two-sport athletes,” said Mathews.

Women’s swim captain Helen Newton ’14 came to Bowdoin intending to play lacrosse, and applied regular decision after a less active recruiting program than many of her peers.

“I had zero intention of swimming [in college]...and I had all the intentions of playing lacrosse for four years,” she said, saying that she only started attending captains’ practices for swimming after a coach suggested it. She joined the team as a walk-on and quit lacrosse after her sophomore year, completing her swimming career as the holder of multiple school records.

Students first, athletes second

There is an expectation that student-athletes will not participate in their sport at the exclusion of other campus activities: “This is a college admission process with an athletic component, not an athletic recruiting process that comes with the opportunity to attend college,” states the NESCAC guidelines

Students are attracted to Bowdoin for its academics, and at times spurn D-I possibilities to bring higher-level athletic talent to the school than it would otherwise have.

“I realized that in D-I, the academics that I wanted weren’t there,” said softball pitcher Julia Geaumont ’16. “I started [talking to D-I schools that said] it would be very unlikely that I would be able to complete a major that would be able to get me pre-med or pre-dental, like I want...Then I decided mid-junior year that I wanted to use softball as something that complimented my years in college, rather than having softball basically be my entire experience.”

Academic support for athletes

Once admitted student-athletes arrive at Bowdoin, they are given easy access to academic support resources that ensure they can hold their own.

“All of our coaches work with the members of their team to make sure they’re getting the support they need, whether that’s connecting a student with the [Center for Learning and Teaching] or with a faculty liaison to have a conversation about time management, course selection or study away decisions,” said Ryan. The faculty liaison system is common throughout the NESCAC and much of the country, connecting one faculty member with each varsity team to be a point person for matters like athletes’ academic concerns and exam scheduling when teams are on the road. 

While academic expectations have been raised throughout the NESCAC since the initial regulations were introduced, and the number of C-band recruits has been lowered, this is arguably most evident at Bowdoin. The College had the most All-Academic athletes of the entire NESCAC this past fall, with 97 student-athletes completing the season with cumulative GPAs of at least 3.35. 

“I know our coach takes a lot of pride in everyone having high GPAs on the team,” said Geaumont. “That was one of the first selling points for me two years ago—we, for D-III softball, had the tenth-highest GPA in the country, which was huge. Now, if your GPA starts to slip, the coaches make sure everyone comes to help you.”

From Barker to now

The 1987 Barker Report included a thorough discussion of the academic performance of athletes, showing that, on average, these athletes did worse overall at Bowdoin than their non-athlete peers in the 1980s. It found an “overemphasis on athletic ability in the admissions process [that] seems at times to work counter to the goal of bringing in the most diverse and academically able group of students that the College can attract.”

“I came here in the mid-’70s, and during that time there was a lot of grumbling from faculty about the quality of the athletes,” Barker said. “Back then there was really a feeling that something was wrong, something was out of balance.

Barker contends that much of the explanation for athletes’ lower grades was due to the optional SAT policy in place at the time.

The Report found that a much larger percentage of athletes—what are now considered B- and C-band recruits—withheld their SAT scores than non-athletes. “The Verbal SAT scores of the withholding male athletes were very low in comparison to the rest of the students...Bowdoin’s optional SAT policy no doubt allows the acceptance of some students who would not be as desirable to other highly selective colleges.”

Some coaches used the SAT-optional policy to recruit athletes whose lower test scores would hinder their chances of being admitted elsewhere.

“It wasn’t like we were making claims [in the report] about these people of being slackers—no, they just in some cases didn’t have the academic background to perform at Bowdoin. Invariably if someone is really strong in one area, you’ll bend a little bit on others,” he added. “Nobody was doing anything wrong—nothing illegal about what they did, or even unethical—but nonetheless the rules were written in such a way that one could do this procedure and it’s not clear that that was for the good of the College at the time.”

Overall, the Barker Report stated that “on average, the students we admit for athletic reasons have lower academic credentials than many applicants who are denied admission, and subsequently do not perform as well academically as their non-athlete classmates.”

Barker said that even though statistical tests weren’t explicitly run, the wide variety of measurements pointed in the same direction, reinforcing their significance. He said that as far as he could remember, the numbers were never challenged.

The report found a noticeable effect in the classroom. It stated that athletes who withheld SAT scores were at the bottom of the student body distribution for GPA and percentages of High Honors grades, while non-athletes who submitted their SATs were at the top of the charts for GPA and High Honors grades. It concluded, “The lower end of the academic spectrum of the Bowdoin student body is heavily weighted with athletes.”

Nearly three decades after the Barker Report, Bowdoin still has an optional SAT policy, but the recruiting standards and practices have changed significantly. While the issue of relatively weaker academic performance by athletes used to be a hot topic at the College—and was in large part the impetus for the Barker Report—it is not felt as strongly today by members of the faculty. 

“In the older days, people regularly did complain about certain courses having a large percentage of athletes who were not doing well and it was affecting the course in a bad way,” said Barker. “I just don’t tend to hear that as much. As far as I can tell, the balance is better now. I found it of concern back then. I don’t tend to find it that way now.”

Information available today indicates that the academic achievement of Bowdoin’s athletes is statistically equal to that of the general student body.

With nearly 35 percent of the student body participating in varsity athletics—638 individuals out of 1830 total students in the 2012-2013 academic year, according to U.S. Department of Education data—the current model has resulted in more academically competitive student-athletes. The College’s 2006 reaccreditation self-survey stated that the GPA of all intercollegiate and club team student-athletes increased from 3.07 in 1999 to 3.22 in 2005, and the overall difference in GPA between the entire student body and student-athletes decreased from 0.12 to 0.01 points over those five years.  

Since the fall 2005 semester, Bowdoin administrative policy has prohibited public discussion about these statistics.

More recent comments made to the Orient by President Barry Mills, Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster, and former athletic director Jeff Ward have confirmed, however, that there is still no significant difference in the GPA of athletes and non-athletes at Bowdoin. 

The Barker Report recommended that its tables and numbers be updated yearly, so that clear comparisons could be made with institutional data routinely collected the same way.

“There was the understanding that each year the administration would review the numbers—which were easy to continue to update—to see if things improved in the areas we had concern in. And things would be released publicly,” Barker said.

“It would seem useful to measure them again, the same way, so that you’re comparing apples to apples,” he added.

It is unclear if the administration will update numbers in the future.

“I suspect some of that updating may have been pushed aside, especially because it hasn’t been the same hot-button issue it was with faculty back then,” said Barker.