NESCAC to develop index for admissions

As part of the effort by the presidents of the 11 New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) schools to reassess the role of athletics in their institutions, Morton Schapiro, president of the College, is collaborating with Tom Gerety, the president of Amherst College, and Douglas Bennet, the president of Wesleyan University, to create an index of normal admissibility for NESCAC schools.

The NESCAC presidents released a statement reaffirming the Conference’s founding ideals and announcing their intention to evaluate the role of athletics following their September meeting. The presidents of the other eight institutions are studying different facets of the issue, such as scheduling and coaching.

Rather than being used directly by schools as an admissions tool, the proposed index is intended to evaluate the success of individual NESCAC schools in admitting student athletes who are representative of the student body as a whole.

Catharine Hill ’76, professor of economics and provost of the College, said, “The idea behind this kind of measure would be to demonstrate to the community and other institutions that we are in fact making decisions in such a way that our athletes are representative of the rest of the student body.”

Hill, Dick Nesbitt, direct of admissions, and the faculty and administrators on the Advisory Group on Admissions and Financial Aid (AGAFA) are assisting Schapiro in his research.

“My real concern is not so much how many athletes become investment bankers, or whether they congregate in the economics department or the psychology department,” Schapiro said, referring to findings of a recent Mellon Foundation study focusing on trends among recruited athletes at NESCAC schools. “What we’re interested in is that most students are given some weight in admissions for a number of non-academic attributes, including music, leadership, community service. For some of them, it’s legacies.”

“We’re trying to figure out a normal range of admissibility not based on SAT scores and GPA alone,” Schapiro continued. “Everybody needs something extra to get into Williams College, and we’re trying to figure out what the weight is of that something extra.”

Hill said that the ultimate purpose of the index is to determine “whether we are weighting these different talents in a way that serves the mission of the institution.”

“Having said that, we now have to think about how to implement and measure this in some way,” Hill said. “So, we are asking ourselves, how do we tell if we have achieved our objective? It isn’t all that straightforward, since we don’t have simple quantitative measures of our students’ achievements and abilities.”

Hill also spoke to the benefits of an admissibility index for the NESCAC as a whole. “Ideally, we would all agree to the same objectives and then agree on how to measure our success, or lack thereof.”

“We want to be in a conference where the members share the same values and where there is a ’level playing field,’” Hill continued. “If we can measure in some way the outcome of what we are doing, it will be easier to guarantee that this is the case.”

The eight Ivy League colleges currently use an admissibility measure known as the “Ivy Index,” which was developed by William Bowen, president of the Mellon Foundation and former president of Princeton University. Hill indicated that part of the background research for the NESCAC formula is to look into the Ivy League’s experience with its index, which has historically been fraught with problems.

Schapiro noted that the Ivy Index can mask some undesirable admissions practices because it is based on the “average” athlete.

“Say that there are three slots on the basketball team at one of these schools,” Schapiro said. “Then they recruit two guys with 1500 [SAT scores] who will sit on the bench the whole season, and the third is a top-notch player with a 1000.”

“It’s a way to get people in who are far below the standard range of admissibility,” Schapiro said. He added that a few members of the economics department have suggested an index weighted by playing time, but was not sure if it would be feasible to compile, interpret and use playing time data in all sports.

“The point is that the Ivy Index has existed long enough that there should be a way that we can make it better,” Schapiro said.

Schapiro said that he, Gerety and Bennet will make some kind of presentation at the Dec. 13 meeting of the NESCAC presidents, but was not certain if they would have a finished product by that time.

“We’re moving ahead a little faster than everyone else because we as a group are already so well-defined,” Schapiro said, alluding to the “Little Three” playing conference of Williams, Amherst and Wesleyan.

“Whether the three of us can agree to a formula or not, I don’t know,” Schapiro said. “Whether we could get the other eight [NESCAC] presidents to sign on, I don’t know. Ideally, the three of us want to come up with something that we can sell to our own institutions first.”

One roadblock to the development of a single index for the Conference is the lack of uniformity among the quantitative measures currently used by the admissions offices at member schools. As an example, Schapiro pointed out that Williams rates applicants on a nine-point academic scale based on GPA and SAT scores, while Amherst uses a five-point scale and other NESCAC schools use other scales.

Hill expressed doubt that a single index would be adequate to serve NESCAC’s purposes.

“I think it will be incredibly difficult to devise one number to measure admissibility,” she said. “We are still working on this issue and haven’t come up with any easy answers. In the end, I suspect that admissibility or really representativeness will have to be measured by something more complicated than one quantitative measure. But, it is too early to tell. We just don’t know yet.”

Schapiro said that whatever he, Gerety and Bennet come up with will have to pass the “smell test,” meaning that they would not move ahead with a formula if it yielded results that seem intuitively wrong.

“You have to have some prior idea about what the smell should be,” Schapiro said. “It’s not that you cook a formula to bias the results in the way that you want, but if the results are completely different from what you expect, you know something is wrong.”

The reevaluation of athletics in NESCAC schools comes less than a year after the publication of The Game of Life by Bowen and James Shulman, the Mellon Foundation’s financial and administrative officer.

The book discusses the relationship between athletics at highly selective schools like Williams and achievement both at college and later in life.

In response to the issues raised by the book, the NESCAC presidents requested an independent study of the NESCAC schools by the Mellon Foundation. The report of that study, entitled the “Academic-Athletic Divide,” was presented to the NESCAC presidents on Sept. 27.

According to a summary of the report published in The Bowdoin Orient (Oct. 12, 2001), the study found that recruited athletes have a significant admissions advantage.

Although average SAT scores for recruited athletes were significantly below those of the applicant pool as a whole, recruited athletes enjoyed twice the average acceptance rate of the entire applicant pool. For the purposes of the study, recruited athletes were considered to be applicants whose names appear on the lists submitted by coaches to the admissions office.

Williams was excluded from the data set for much of the study, primarily because Williams takes a different approach to “tips” than most NESCAC schools. “Tips” are those admitted students who fill a predetermined number of spaces in the class that are reserved for high-performing athletes in various sports.

Most schools do not know how many of the students admitted as “tips” will matriculate before students officially notify admissions of their decisions. Williams, however, makes an effort to confirm that “tips” intend to matriculate to Williams before making admissions decisions.

The study found that between 50 and 84 percent of recruited high-profile athletes ended up in the bottom third of their class at NESCAC schools excluding Williams.

It also found that student-athletes majored in the social sciences in disproportionate numbers, and had consistently lower rank-in-class than their SAT scores, fields of study and college selectivity would predict.

The NESCAC is comprised of Amherst College, Bates College, Bowdoin College, Colby College, Connecticut College, Hamilton College, Middlebury College, Trinity College, Tufts University, Wesleyan University and Williams.