Why Athletes Have an Edge at Elite Colleges

Last Updated Sep 11, 2009 12:52 PM EDT

When fans think about college sports, what comes to mind are
epic Division I battles that pack stadiums and attract millions of TV viewers —
USC fighting against Ohio State for Rose Bowl honors or North Carolina battling
Kansas at the Big Dance in March. However, most college athletes compete far
away from ESPN's cameras and color commentators. They attend the 429
schools in the NCAA's Division III, where by definition, sports are
supposed to take a backseat to education. Many elite liberal arts colleges,
such as Amherst, Middlebury, Pomona, Carleton, and Bryn Mawr, belong to D-III.
In theory, athletes applying to these schools should enjoy no particular
advantage in admissions or financial aid; and when at these schools, they
should be given the time and freedom to study abroad, work on the school
newspaper, participate in an internship, and enjoy other school activities. The
reality is a lot more complicated — and that can make a huge difference
in your child-athlete's success and happiness at school.

The D-III Play


Officially, financial favoritism for athletes at D-III
schools is strictly forbidden. NCAA rules prohibit D-III schools from awarding
athletic scholarships. (Ivy League schools play in Division I, but don’t
provide athletic scholarships.) And while merit scholarships are perfectly
permissible, a baseball pitcher’s merit award shouldn’t
look any different than the one extended to a philosophy major with the same
academic profile whose extracurricular activity is the gospel choir.



The Low-Down


That’s the NCAA’s story, and they’re
sticking to it. In its 2006 href="http://www.ncaa.org/wps/wcm/connect/0462e7804e0d4e469171f11ad6fc8b25/GenderEquityRept-Final.pdf?MOD=AJPERES&CACHEID=0462e7804e0d4e469171f11ad6fc8b25">report
on gender equity and sports in fact, the organization reports not one dime
spent on athletic scholarships for Division III schools. But the fact is that
athletes still enjoy an advantage. A scholar-athlete who could boost a sports
program’s performance stats could be irresistible to coaches and
admission offices. You should never discount the level of competition between
elite schools and their athletic departments, says Ellen Staurowsky, professor
and graduate chair in the Department of Sport Management and Media at Ithaca
College. “Even though there are no formal athletic scholarships,
there is always a feeling that another institution may be out-recruiting yours
because they are more generous about giving assistance.” And despite
the rules, there is no shortage of money for athletes at elite schools. “Small
private schools have amazing supplies of money for talent and leadership
awards,” observes Scott Brayton, who is founder of Varsity Student
Institute in Bellevue, Wash., which has advised hundreds of student athletes.
The simple truth, he says: D-III schools can award any kind of financial aid
they want, “as long as they don’t call it an athletic scholarship.”


A college that wants your child can offer a merit
scholarship based on his or her academic record, special talents, or the
catch-all category known as “leadership.” Leadership
scholarships go to teenagers who have demonstrated “leadership abilities”
in various activities, including student government, charitable work, and other
extracurriculars. The NCAA theoretically forbids using leadership scholarships
for sports. But jocks capture them anyway, according to Brayton. He has a
client, for instance, who received a leadership scholarship to a liberal arts
college in the Pacific Northwest last year, where she plays soccer. In addition
to a $12,000 merit award, she won an $8,000 leadership scholarship that
requires her to give a presentation on an unspecified topic on campus once a
year. Doesn’t sound too demanding.

Using Athletics as a Hook


What applies to financial aid, of course, also applies to
admissions. Being a jock dramatically improves your child’s odds of
getting into even the nation’s most elite colleges. At Ivy League
schools, sports candidates are four times more likely than other applicants to
be accepted, according to Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational
Values, a book co-authored by William G. Bowen, a past president of Princeton
University. Robert Malekoff, a former associate athletic director at Harvard
University and past women’s soccer coach at Princeton, concurs.
Sports give students an admissions edge at other highly selective schools, too.
“There is no question that there is an admission advantage for
students who play sports,” Malekoff says.

The Hitches


Ideally, your child, once admitted, enjoys a well-rounded
elite education that includes varsity sports. But not all D-III coaches share
this vision. To rack up a record of wins and to further their own careers, some
coaches may demand as much time and effort from their players as do their D-I
counterparts. The upshot: a student athlete may end up feeling more like a
school’s employee. “The most important thing is to figure
out who the coach would be and what sort of program he runs and what his
attitude is about a student’s balance between academics and
athletics,” says Michael Davidson, a history professor at Wilkes
University, who blogs about
intercollegiate athletics
. If a coach is an alma mater of the school or has
coached at the college for many years, chances are he will run a traditional
program that allows an athlete to also be a scholar, Davidson says. On the flip
side, coaches who competed at Division I schools or served as assistant coaches
at top schools, are more likely to see their current jobs as stepping stones to
head coach posts at big-name sports schools. Such coaches are more likely to
demand more from team members.


Another drawback: social isolation. Oftentimes athletes,
regardless of their NCAA division, don’t socialize with other
students, says Murray Sperber, a visiting professor at the University of
California at Berkeley, and the author of Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College
Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education. Surprisingly, that problem may
crop up more often in D-III schools. “At a school like Indiana, there
are about 800 intercollegiate athletes and student managers, but they are a
small subgroup when you have a student population of 38,000,” says
Sperber. “At D-III schools, the jocks often become the largest
subgroup.” Before your kid decides to enroll, he or she should talk
to a couple of prospective teammates to learn how they spend their spare hours,
whether they eat all their meals together, attend parties only with each other,
or have friends from classes or other extracurricular activities.

The Final Score


If your teenager is an academic dunce with a GPA that looks
like binary code, he or she is not likely to gain admission to a selective
school on the strength of his or her chops as a wrestler or shot-putter —
and definitely unlikely to get scholarship help. But if your child could walk
the walk, talk the talk, and basically hold his or her own academically, then
excellence in a sport could help him or her win admission — and
financial help.

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