A recent study at Amherst College highlighting preferences for athletes in the admission process over the last 10 years raises questions about the admissions process at Williams.
According to Interim Director of Admissions Dick Nesbit Williams avoided the same trend due to a more research- based acceptance process.
“We’re fortunate because we have an oversight group here that Amherst does not. One of Tom Parker’s biggest challenges at Amherst is to create a similar committee to give them some guidance,” Nesbitt said. The Advisory Group for Admissions and Financial Aid (AGAFA) grew out of a financial aid task force. Presently the provost chairs the committee made up of various members of the administration and two members of the faculty.
The director of admissions reports to the committee which functions completely separately from the Admissions Office. “They can take a step back and evaluate what we do in the context of the entire school,” Nesbitt said.
Both Nesbitt and Director of Athletics Robert Peck see the lurch, the years when preferences for athletes were particularly egregious at Amherst, as a result of neglecting athletics.
“They’re experiencing a backlash that we get caught up in,” Peck said. “Their [athletic] program went down sharply which is not traditional of Amherst. I was always concerned with how they would correct it. In the end they made a correction too fast and too radically.”
Although the NCAA Division III recruiting requirements are more lax than for Division I and Division II schools, Williams follows the more strict NESCAC policy. Coaches cannot talk to students off-campus but must instead contact prospective athletes through mail, phone calls and on-campus visits. When students come to visit they are given only a meal ticket and a student host.
The funds available for talent evaluations are very limited. Coaches can go to games or races to watch but are reimbursed for only gas and food; there is a cap for each sport’s reimbursements. Peck explained that only 14 sports use this method to evaluate athletes.
Each coach has an admissions office liaison with whom he can consult about a prospective’s chances for acceptance. Nesbitt said, “We want as much communication as possible with the coaches. The liaisons make it easier on the coaches because they can either be more encouraging towards an athlete or let the students down easily.”
Peck added that the College’s coaches are “sophisticated, they have a good idea of who can get in or not but the liaisons are really helpful for borderline candidates.”
With the exception of Amherst, Williams comes out ahead of other NESCAC schools in terms of recruited athletes matriculating. While Williams cultivates the image of the ideal enviorment for the student-athete, Peck notes “any scholar-athlete can go to any NESCAC school and do fine.”
Nesbitt concurred, adding that Williams does not usually overlap with NESCAC schools other than Amherst; rather, most student-athletes choose between Williams and Ivy League universities. Students sometimes choose the chance to play multiple sports at Williams over one sport at an Ivy. Within the Ivy League there is an academic index into which an athlete must fall in order qualify for admission. Therefore, Nesbitt said, any accepted athlete at Williams would fall within this index.
“We’re fortunate to have high quality coaches who could coach at any level. Top student-athletes can come here and receive as good coaching as they would anywhere else,” Nesbitt said.
Williams admissions, like those at other schools, rely on “reader ratings” to make their decision. Admissions officers assign an academic rating from one (highest) to nine (lowest) and a non-academic rating to each applicant. While the academic rating is a composite of tests scores, grades, program and recommendations, a one generally has a 1550 or higher composite SAT score and is in the top two percent of his or her class.
The non-academic rating comes from extra-curricular activities and depends on commitment and achievement in those areas. Evaluations from coaches or professors, on music, art, theater or dance performance provide additional feedback to the admissions office.
According to Nesbitt, “80 percent of our decisions are made from purely academic comparisons.” He explained that the eights and nines are never considered for admission and very few sevens (1180 SATs and top 15 percent of their class) are accepted.
“Below the one and two academic ranking, there must be a good rationale for letting the student in,” Nesbitt said. “A 1400 is the median score and without something extra, like athletics, the student might not make it.”
Williams strives to emulate Stanford’s model for admissions, according to Nesbitt. “They are a Division I school with excellent athletics and excellent academics.”
Athletics is not the only determinant in admissions, however. Within a set of strict academic boundaries, there is special consideration for children of alumni, atypical students (those coming from circumstances including different socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds), local students and those with special talents.
The Student-Athlete at Williams
Although there is no effort to track the success or failure of student-athletes once they matriculate, “we would hear about it if a certain program’s kids were flunking out,” Nesbitt said.
“Give coaches credit for recruiting athletes who do well here,” Peck said. The Athletic Department’s expectation is that their athletes attend their classes and fulfill class requirements but there are no academic standards for athletes. Coaches do not intervene with academics unless teams or the Dean’s Office bring a situation to their attention.
“The Dean’s Office recognizes that coaches have the potential for close relationships with their athletes that professors may not,” Peck explained. If any academic problems arise, coaches primarily talk to their athletes and refer them to the appropriate resources.
While students may get in trouble, Peck insisted they do not flunk out because they are incapable of the work. Instead, outside issues like social situations or alcohol contribute to academic problems.
Furthermore, though Williams’s athletics have had good and bad years, “we haven’t let a program hit rock bottom which is where the problems arise,” Peck said.
The success of athletics at Williams has benefited the college as a whole, according to Nesbitt. Winning the Sears Cup, for example, brings more name recognition and “shows we can be an excellent school that also has an great athletic program,” Nesbitt said.