Study Finds Athletes Have Little Connection to Student Life
By KAREN W. ARENSON
The New York Times
September 15, 2003, Monday
Even at the nation's elite colleges and universities, athletes have become so narrowly focused on sports that they are far removed from their classmates academically, socially and culturally, according to a study of intercollegiate athletics in the Ivy League and at 25 other highly selective colleges.
Such institutions do not have the same kind of problems with low graduation rates for student athletes that less selective schools have. But the study found that the recruited athletes were admitted with significantly lower grades and College Board scores and then performed more poorly than would be expected for students with those grades and test scores.
"Increasingly, athletes have become separated from the rest of the campus community," said William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton University and now president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, who conducted the study with Sarah A. Levin, a former researcher at the foundation. "There is a significant, serious, widening divide between the academic and the athletic sides of campus life."
Their findings are described in the book "Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values," published this month by Princeton University Press.
A generation ago, athletes at elite colleges were far closer to their fellow students in academic performance and student life outside the gym, the study said.
The authors said that in an era of heightened competition for admission to top colleges, recruited athletes took up a large number of seats and did not make the best use of what those institutions have to offer, often focusing on sports to the exclusion of other extracurricular activities like student government or community service.
"Many students not admitted clearly could have used these resources to much fuller advantage," the study said.
The authors said the elite colleges had felt a false sense of well-being because they did not have the same problems as schools with big-time sports programs. But, they said, recruited athletes actually represent a much larger part of their student bodies: almost 20 percent of the men in the Ivy League and 25 percent at small liberal arts schools.
The study looked at the four-year records of nearly 28,000 freshmen who entered 33 selective colleges and universities in 1995. Besides the Ivy League, the study included colleges like Williams, Amherst, Tufts, Wesleyan, Bryn Mawr, Smith and Wellesley.
The authors said that once it had been athletes mainly in football, basketball and ice hockey who lagged academically but that now it was athletes across the full range of men's and most women's sports.
They said the problem had more to do with the types of students recruited than with the time spent playing sports. The study found that the small number of students who walk on to intercollegiate teams did not lag in the same way that recruited athletes did, even when they spent comparable time playing.
Some college presidents, the authors said, are convinced that such problems exist on other campuses but not on their own. But the data showed that the only exceptions were a small group of colleges in the University Athletic Association, a relatively new conference that includes the University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, Emory and Washington University in St. Louis.
"People are really shocked when we show them the school-specific data," Ms. Levin said last week in a presentation of the study at the Mellon Foundation in New York. "All of them think this couldn't be happening at my school. They are really surprised."
She and Dr. Bowen said greater competition in college sports and the fear of having losing teams had increasingly led top colleges to recruit athletes who had trained intensively from a young age, often to the exclusion of other interests.
"One driver is the fear of humiliation," Dr. Bowen said.
The study said recruited athletes enjoyed a large advantage for admission. For male recruits, the odds of admission to the Ivy League colleges were more than four times greater than for comparable male applicants not on a coach's list; the advantage for female recruits was even higher.
The advantage for recruits was greater than for the children of alumni, or legacies. In the Ivy League, the advantage was also greater than for minority applicants.
The authors recommended that colleges reduce the number of recruited athletes, raise academic standards required of athletic recruits and work to help them improve their scholastic performance once they are enrolled.
Although many college officials lamented the problem, they said they could not make changes unless others did, too, or they would have losing teams.
"Reform has to be simultaneously local and national," William D. Adams, president of Colby College, one of the schools in the study, said during the presentation last week. "No one wants to go this alone."
Some colleges have embarked on changes, prompted, in part, by an earlier Mellon report published in "The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values" (Princeton University Press, 2001) by Dr. Bowen and James L. Shulman.
The Ivy League presidents, for example, agreed last year to cut the number of recruited football athletes for each school to 120 over four years, from 140; this year they also raised the academic requirements for all recruited athletes.
"These are modest changes, but it is a start," said Richard Levin, Yale's president and the father of Ms. Levin.
Some colleges have acted individually. Three years ago, Swarthmore, which was in the study, eliminated varsity football. Last week, Vanderbilt, which was not in the study, announced that it was reorganizing its athletic programs to try to integrate them more into academic and student life.
"What Bill Bowen is saying is tragic but true," the Vanderbilt chancellor, E. Gordon Gee, said in an interview on Friday. "But I am not going to accept that that is the way it has to be. We are trying to break that barrier down. I think we can be competitive on and off the field, and create a model where our athletes are scholars and learners too."