January, 2003

“It’s All About Who Gets In”


By Dave Barnard

Head Baseball/Assistant Football Coach

Williams College


….. That’s how Game of Life coauthor, Jim Shulman framed the discussion regarding the role of athletics at top colleges and universities in a recent Boston Globe article.  Williams College President Morty Schapiro agrees, “With each slot so precious, we better make sure that no single ‘attribute’ has undue weight.”  The original NESCAC mission statement mandates that “….. competing players are to be representative of the student body.” 


Having some time between football and baseball seasons, I thought that it might be interesting to investigate just exactly how “representative” our athletes are relative to both similar institutions and other groups that receive an “attribute” tag in the Williams admissions office.


“The Superiority of the Professionally Informed”


In my due diligence for this project I immediately discovered that it was going to be very difficult coaxing any admissions officer, school administrator or athletic director to speak on the record or provide documentation about admissions numbers.  Even the Mellon Foundation’s College and Beyond data base (statistics used exclusively in The Game of Life and The Shape of the River) is “restricted” and generally unavailable to researchers.  This suppression of information immediately raises suspicions about the motives of both the authors and decision makers. “Whoever likes to conceal something,” noted 18th century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, “sooner or later has reason to conceal it.” 


The Williams college admissions office lists 35 different attribute codes, almost half of which are based on immutable characteristics.  Presumably those factors play a role in the evaluation process and as such seemed fair game for comparison to priority listed athletes.  Not so according to Williams College administrators who denied me access to the records, stating that the release of “highly confidential” admissions data could “stigmatize some groups.”   Stigmatize some groups?  Someone disseminated a lot of admissions statistics and other information about Williams varsity athletes (newspaper articles, The Game of Life, ad hoc college committees, etc.).  One might conclude that either athletes are immune from stigmatization or that the providers and publishers of the data have an agenda.  Princeton Athletic Director Gary Walters also refused my request for information, citing college policy. “Apparently,” quipped a sympathetic Walters, “the same principle doesn’t apply to the Mellon Foundation” (Princeton participated in the College and Beyond study). 


Renowned sociologist Max Weber observed: “Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret.”  While secrecy may be legitimate in the case of national security or in protecting a competitive free market advantage, it has no place at the academy where knowledge depends on unfettered access to information coupled with free and open discussion.  “Everything secret degenerates,” concluded Lord Acton, “even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bare discussion and publicity.” 


Anyway, because of the lack of transparency regarding this subject much of the data that follows was obtained from and verified by confidential sources. 


The Myth of Williams Athletic Dominance


A study of NESCAC championships reveals that while Williams is certainly very competitive athletically it is not dominant within the conference in team sports.  In 2½ years of official NESCAC team championships Middlebury has won the most outright titles with 11, Williams 8, Amherst and Bowdoin 4 apiece, followed by Tufts with 3.  Since official round robin league play began in 2000 Williams has never won a NESCAC championship in men’s or women’s hockey, men’s or women’s basketball, men’s or women’s lacrosse, softball or women’s soccer.


In the Williams College Report On Varsity Athletics the researching committee made note that the college’s varsity winning percentage had increased from 54.1% to 77.1% over the last 20 years.  While our programs may have indeed grown stronger during that time period, the primary reason for greater success has more to do with scheduling than anything else.  Prior to the late-eighties, Williams routinely played Ivy and Patriot League teams (Army, Holy Cross, Colgate, etc.) in several sports.  Now, with the exception of skiing and squash, Williams does not schedule division I opponents.  Those schools have been replaced by local division III colleges like Skidmore, Westfield State and Southern Vermont.    


For Sears Cup competition in 2001 and 2002, of the 1886.5 points earned in sum total by Williams, 1569.5 of those points, or 83%, were awarded to men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s skiing, men’s and women’s track and field, men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s golf, and women’s crew – individual sports that traditionally require limited admissions support.


Athletics, Admissions and the New Math


Last year Williams, Amherst and Wesleyan agreed to a seemingly arbitrary 66 number for athletic priority listed athletes with 14 going to football (because there is no enforcement mechanism no one knows whether the limit refers to admits or matriculants).  The new formula for the rest of the league allocates 14 slots for football, 2.5 for non-NESCAC exclusive sports (skiing, sailing and squash) and 2 for all others - distribution of slots to be determined by each institution in accordance with its needs and philosophy.   


The table below shows that Williams receives the least amount of admissions support per sport relative to other very selective colleges and universities and also ranks near the bottom in terms of priority listed athletes as a percentage of the freshmen class. 





Ath. Slots

% of Frosh

































































































Critics may argue that if “protects,” or ultra high band admits (roughly 1450-1520 SAT range), were included then Williams would fall more in line with the group (the number of athletic priority slots would increase from 66 to 81 if you consider protects to be half of a tip as admissions does).  Those numbers were correctly not considered because applicants at that level here are so called “academic admits” (accepted without regard to attributes) at every other school in the league including Amherst.  In the last couple of years for instance, 2 baseball recruits rated as “protects” at Williams were “academic admits” at both Harvard and Dartmouth – I know this because the respective Ivy coaches were not aware of the players in question prior to their acceptance. 


In a Game of Life 1989 cohort, 32% of NESCAC students participated in a varsity sport vs. 27% in the Ivy League.  However, as the previous table indicates, liberal arts colleges give far fewer athletes admissions preference.  This fact is also substantiated by a comparison of SAT differentials.   The College and Beyond database reveals that 1989 mean SAT scores for Ivy athletes were 67 points below the league student body mean while only 61 points separated NESCAC athletes from students not on a varsity team.  Surprisingly, although Harvard, Yale and Princeton have 2 to 3 times the undergraduate population of most NESCAC schools, the upper Ivy group’s combined percentage of priority-listed athletes relative to total enrollment is 18%, one-third greater than the NESCAC composite of 12%.


Noting the significant difference in intercollegiate admissions support at Harvard, Yale and Princeton compared to the NESCAC, naysayers might maintain that those institutions play division I schedules, but do they really?  Athletics in the Ivy are need based, non-scholarship and generally non-competitive outside the league or region in anything that a team can’t simultaneously be ranked nationally in the top and bottom 20.


Getting back to our athletics/admissions situation within the NESCAC, while tenths of a slot per team may appear trivial, in raw numbers the cutbacks amount to at least 3 to 13 fewer matriculants than the rest of the conference for an intercollegiate program that fields 1 to 6 more sports than any other school in the league.  Among the Little Three, Williams also has the most to lose by not going along with the new NESCAC admissions policy.  The hypothetical result of adopting a revamped league admissions formula here would be a gain of 15 slots to 81 (a number close to our yield most years prior to 2001), Amherst would net just 1 athlete to 67 with Wesleyan adding 5 to 71. 


Moreover, Williams now has an admit to matriculation ratio approaching 1 for priority listed athletes whereas all other NESCAC institutions can overyield the number without penalty.  Most NESCAC schools are permitted between 2 and 3 admits for each athletic slot in the regular decision pool.  Until 2 years ago, Williams’ coaches were also allowed to overyield.  For much of the 1980’s and 90’s our target number in admissions (72) was consistently exceeded, some years by a dozen or more recruits.  So, despite the fact that athletic “tips” (priority listed athletes) have officially only been cut 8% from 72-66, if you consider matriculations, the athletic priority listed number has more accurately been reduced 20 to 25%.


Although neither the NESCAC or Ivy regulate low band (roughly 1150-1250 SAT here) athletic priority admits for every intercollegiate sport (the Ivy tiers football, hockey and basketball only), historically those colleges, including Williams prior to 2001, reserved between 1/4 and 1/3 of their slots for athletes with standardized test scores and grades below 2 standard deviations (low band) of the student body mean.  Each year 29% of the recruited Ivy football class are low banders.




In ‘02 Williams matriculated 10 priority listed athletes, or 15% of the “tipped” athletic class, with admissions reader ratings at or near the bottom of the acceptable range - down significantly from previous yields.  Last year, Amherst admitted 19 priority-listed athletes in the low band or 29% of their recruited class, a figure much more in line with the rest of the NESCAC and Ivy.  This spring, because of institutional policy changes, Williams could accept as few as 5 players in the bottom academic tier.  As a result of a preliminary read last winter, admissions said no to a low band baseball recruit that was subsequently admitted to Yale.


Prior to the new millennium, a Williams legacy with good grades and SAT scores around 1300 who had the potential to contribute to varsity athletics was usually admitted without counting against a team’s allotment of priority slots.  Now, sons and daughters of alums generally need to score in the 1400 SAT range or better in order to gain acceptance without being on a coach’s list.  Further, until recently the “protect” floor was approximately 50 SAT points lower than where it is today (1400 vs.1450).


Half a century ago, according to the College and Beyond database, 37% of males at selective liberal arts schools participated in 2 varsity sports.  By 1989 that number had been reduced to 20%.   Today the percentage of two sport NESCAC male athletes is surely lower still.  For instance, Wesleyan presently has no football players on their baseball roster.  Amherst has 2.  In 1990 every head baseball coach in the NESCAC also assisted in football.  Presently there are only 4 coaches involved in both programs.


One must also consider the fact that many “tips” at Williams and Amherst are “academic admits” at every other school in the league.  In fact, several NESCAC colleges don’t even require SAT’s, a policy begun in the early 1980’s by Bowdoin ostensibly to justify the acceptance of hockey players with mediocre standardized test scores.




At a time when fewer and fewer college athletes are playing two sports, Williams is reducing the number of athletic priority slots and low band admits while raising the minimum standard for both “protects” and legacies.  The resulting squeeze has become so acute for some second tier men’s teams that last year wrestling forfeited 2 weight classes throughout the season, unable to field a complete squad due to low roster numbers.


Williams has always accomplished the most with the least admissions support.  Even before the change in policy, relative to the league we had the fewest low band athletic priority admits, highest team median SAT scores and fewest athletic priority slots. 


Over the years many low band athletes have become not only outstanding players but also valued members of the Williams community, people who went on to successful careers in various fields of endeavor including doctors, lawyers, businessmen and women, professors, teachers, coaches and yes, professional athletes.   The reduction in low band enrollment will definitely result in worse teams and probably a less socio-economically diverse student body.  


What we have witnessed since the publication of The Game of Life is a major unilateral shift in Williams’ policy pertaining to athletic priority admissions standards.  With the rest of the league, including Amherst, now matriculating more athletes per sport at lower academic levels - unless we act to correct the situation - it is simply a matter of time before our teams are significantly less competitive.




What’s unique about Williams is a tradition of academic and athletic excellence that no other school save Stanford has been able to duplicate.


The challenge going forward is to preserve our uniqueness while meeting the escalating academic requirements associated with globalization and an international applicant pool.  Here are two modest proposals that might accomplish that objective:


  1. Adopt the new NESCAC policy of 2.5 athletic priority matriculants per sport, but with some restrictions.  The allocation and range of admits would be as follows: 20 in the low band (7 admissions reader rating/1150-1250 SAT’s range), 40 in the middle band (5 or 6 admissions reader ratings/1250-1400 SAT’s range), 21 in an expanded high band (3 or 4 admissions reader ratings/1400-1500 SAT’s range) plus 12 “protects” (3 admissions reader rating/1450-1500 SAT range) - the latter band to be distributed primarily among individual sports with a tradition of being able to compete with higher achieving academic talent.  This formula would allow athletics to give admissions back 7 slots while maintaining an average reader rating of 4.9, 1/10 of a point below where it was 3 years ago.


  1. Establish a NESCAC clearinghouse for the purpose of monitoring and enforcing league admissions standards (the Ivy League has a similar office).  Member institutions would be required to submit admissions statistics, distinguishing athletic from academic acceptances.  Penalties should be assessed for infractions, reducing or eliminate overyields and false claims of academic admits.


Proponents of the “more representative” admissions approach for student-athletes contend that less competitive teams are a small price to pay for a 50 point increase in the average SAT scores of 100 Williams College freshmen.  I would conclude just the opposite – that half of an admissions reader point decrease for one-sixth of the student body is virtually meaningless compared to a Williams victory over Amherst.