Rethinking recruitment: Increasing student diversity through existing applicant pools

February 17, 2016 by Hayden Rooke-Ley

President Adam Falk has admirably challenged colleges to strive for a socioeconomically diverse student body with a proactive approach beyond “need-blind” admissions.

But there is a simpler way to increase such diversity. Among the group of applicants who have the lowest acceptable academic credentials under current admissions standards, colleges ought to reduce the number of admission offers to (predominantly white and well-off) athletes and increase the number offered to minority and low-income candidates. Indeed, we ought to consider the entire constellation of college admissions and thus reorder priorities in existing applicant pools.

Last spring, I attended a presentation concerning the role of fellow recruited athletes at the College, who were said to comprise roughly 30 percent of each class – a staggering figure that I learned had resulted from historic accidents rather than from serious consideration. At NESCAC schools (including the College), the Ivy League universities and many other smaller, elite institutions, the percentage of recruited athletes is generally around 20 to 30 percent. Thus, at all of these institutions, this group substantially molds each entering class.

The College, like other institutions, targets well-rounded students who exhibit impeccable academic marks and test scores and bring unique abilities or characteristics to the student body. Candidates may be admitted, in part, for their remarkable singing voices, for unrivaled debate team accolades or for their cultural or geographical backgrounds. These students advance the pedagogical objective of diversity by cultivating an enhanced learning environment, inside and outside of the classroom. But the admission advantage given to approximately one-half of admitted athletes – i.e. the degree to which the College will weight this non-academic factor in the evaluation process – far exceeds that accorded to, say, a stellar pianist or rural Montanan.

Preference in admission is also conferred on low-income students and racial minorities, a laudable and necessary practice because admission affords them a transformative opportunity to reverse the vicious cycles of poverty and oppression. Elite academic institutions must offer each place in an incoming class with a keen sense of their societal responsibility.

In the ensuing discussion at the College last spring, athletes and coaches, equipped with statistics, extolled the academic performance of student-athletes. A reconsideration of the athletic presence or treatment in admissions, they implied, was unnecessary. Yet while their data was accurate, their corollary was flawed. They merely confirmed that less-traditionally qualified students can uphold the academic standards at elite schools, begging the question: Why do athletes – who tend to be primarily wealthy and white – make up so many of those admits who receive preference in admission?

On this topic, the College’s Director of Admission Richard Nesbitt ’74 and Deputy Director Elizabeth Creighton ’01 informed me that such practices are necessary to produce the school’s 30 championship-caliber athletic teams. They pointed to the College’s culture of successful athletics, citing the ability of the athletic program to attract even non-athletes. They stressed the administration’s commitment to expanding the pool of impressive applicants in regard to all types of diversity, from athletic to socioeconomic and racial.

Nesbitt echoed Falk’s public statements about novel practices to discover and recruit desired students. “We are pouring immense resources into targeting highly talented low-income students – and these students, unfortunately, are difficult to find.” A large part of this difficulty is a product of our society’s ignominious income and racial achievement disparities. And, to be sure, the College deserves great credit for its sustained effort to expand the pool of talented low-income and racially diverse candidates. However, this effort doesn’t address existing qualified diversity applicants; it fixates on expanding the pool before exhaustively utilizing it.

I discussed such practices with Tom Parker ’69, who served as director of admissions at the College for 20 years before becoming the dean of admissions and financial aid at Amherst in 2000. He worked at Amherst for the next 14 years and was instrumental in placing Amherst at the vanguard of low-income-student enrollment among most elite institutions. Parker confirmed that “low-income students and racial minorities are being waitlisted in admissions offices, while academically comparable candidates are admitted as recruited athletes.” When asked about this inherent tradeoff, Parker acknowledged that “challenging the existing admissions structure is ultimately a discussion of values.”

I love athletics. And I love the College. My intention is not to besmirch an institution that provided me with a world-class education and the potential to pursue a career in law or medicine. Likewise, I hesitate to criticize an athletic department to which I credit life-long relationships and unforgettable experiences.

But when we confront the systemic hurdles faced by racial minorities and the poor, our nation’s collective role in imposing such barriers and the ability of all elite institutions to ameliorate these conditions, we cannot sit idly by. As the College assiduously works to expand the pool of low-income and minority applicants, I worry that its diversity objective is considered myopically, without regard to the greater mosaic of college admissions.

Given the admission assistance currently afforded to athletes at so many smaller, elite institutions – both in degree and kind – the College ought to exercise its long-standing leadership role by granting some of those slots to furthering socioeconomic and racial diversity on campus.

Hayden Rooke-Ley ’15 was a biology and political science double major. He lives in Israel.

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