Athletes’ academic discrepancy declines

The Athletics Committee conducted a report on academic performance of varsity athletes versus non-athletes to be completed and submitted to the faculty in May. The first study conducted since Michael MacDonald, former chair of the committee, released a report in 2001, it found that the overall gap in academic performance has been halved, and that gap has been eliminated for females when averaged across all sports. Despite this progress, a considerable discrepancy does remain for high-profile male athletes in sports such as football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey.

The results of the report show that the performance gap for male athletes in non high-profile sports, such as squash or cross-country, has also been eliminated. While the difference is still apparent among high-profile male athletes, Heather Williams, chair of the Athletics Committee, said, “Our guess is that that gap is narrowing, too.”

The criteria for gauging academic performance in this case is “GPA, corrected for incoming academic credentials, sex and socioeconomic status,” according to Williams. The correction entails creating a linear model. “This process essentially factors out the effects of all these variables and looks at the remaining effect that is accounted for by varsity athlete vs. non-athlete,” Williams said.

The news that high-profile male athletes are underperforming non-athletes is “not anything new,” Williams said. The MacDonald report of 2001 raised this issue, and several books have been written that highlight it as a concern on many college campuses. The gap is likely attributed to underlying factors in the athletics culture on campus.

Williams noted that the MacDonald report sited the phenomenon of “clumping,” when several teammates choose to take the same classes, as a concern for team culture. This phenomenon is difficult to prevent, though. “You can’t outlaw clumping. Students have the right to make their own choices,” Williams said.

Dick Nesbitt, dean of Admission, noted the stigma associated with seeking academic support. “We have such great academic support systems here at Williams, yet some student-athletes may avoid seeking extra help simply because they are too proud to take advantage of it. Team culture may be an inhibiting factor,” he said. He added that “peer effect” of team dynamics are not always conducive to academic success. “[Seeking extra help] should not be a stigma, it has to be encouraged,” Nesbitt said. “Coaches should be aware of the culture, and they can be active in promoting a healthier environment.”

While the averages compiled in the Athletics Committee report show a disparity in academic performance between athletes and non-athletes, Williams emphasized that these numbers are, in fact, averages. “We worry reporting that athletes are underperforming creates a stereotype.” Nesbitt echoed her sentiment, saying, “We should not overlook the fact that there are so many athletes at Williams who are superb students. Coaches deserve a lot of the credit for recruiting athletes who are also stars in the classroom.”

From an admission standpoint, Nesbitt noted that since 1999, the Office of Admission has “actively raised the floor on athletes that we admit.” He added, “The overall academic quality of athletes has significantly increased, and now it’s much closer to the mean of the class as a whole.”

Williams said that the academic standards for athletes that are drawn up by the NESCAC are adjusted annually, and are always increasing. The Office of Admission specifically has what is called an “academic reader-rating scale” that is also consciously raised each year. “How low you go is not as low as it used to be,” said Williams, noting that special talents will not get an applicant as far as they used to. Now, applicants must meet higher academic standards in addition to possessing extracurricular talents.

The Athletic Committee’s report consists of recommendations for the College to improve the intersection between athletics and academics. These recommendations have not yet been finalized, but will include “helping coaches be aware of how athletes are performing academically,” according to Williams. One concern regarding the coaching staff is that although coaches are considered faculty of the College, the division of the day often prevents them from attending faculty meetings, which are typically held around 4 p.m. “We need to find ways to include coaches,” Williams said. Increased communication between academic faculty members and coaches could potentially aid coaches in helping their athletes succeed academically.