Students who could make the grade athletically but might not have such good grades academically often were granted admission in preference to students with better academic achievement - just to beef up the school's athletic program.
Colleges have long justified those decisions as more than a matter of boosting alumni morale, a key step in encouraging alumni to boost the school's financial status with donations.
James L. Shulman, co-author of The Game of Life, a study of sports and education, says the data his team found did not support one of the most common rationales for promoting athletics ahead of academics, namely that "sports builds leaders."
"The data that we found are very clear," says Shulman, in an interview with CBS News Correspondent John Roberts. "Athletes from these schools are no more likely to be civic leaders than anyone else."
Shulman also says the opinions of the alumni themselves also fly in the face in the face of traditional wisdom.
"We found that the alumni want less emphasis, not more, on sports," says Shulman.
Some schools are aware of that and one prestigious college, Swarthmore, has made a change to reflect that.
In the past, Swarthmore, in suburban Philadelphia, had reserved as many as a quarter of all its freshman class slots for students with athletic ability.
This year, the number's been dropped to 15 percent, a decision that has caused howls of protest in some quarters.
The acceptance and rejection letters for the 3500 applicants vying for Swarthmore's 375 slots went out last week and some students with great moves on the athletic field were shocked to be among the rejected.
"I feel like they don't have any honor, they lied to me!" says one disappointed applicant.
"We'll sever all ties to this school, despite having a five-generation history," says an angry parent.
Jim Bock, of the Swarthmore Admissions department, says after much soul-searching, the school decided to drop several sports, including football.
"We're a small school, we can't do everything," explains Bock, pointing out that it's a matter of using scarce resources to balance priorities. "In terms of academics, we offer Chinese but not Japanese. We offer engineering but not social work Well, we offer 21 sports now, but not 30."
Some students, however, say they can't help wondering if this is the beginning of the end.
"Are we the next team to go?" wonders one softball player. "It's kind of a scary thought for all of us."
Shulman says the hiring of fewer full-time coaches, the sponsoring of fewer varsity sports and encouragement of club sports on campus can all be ways for schools to improve the financial balance between sports and academics.
Shulman, whosco-author is former Princeton University president William G. Bowen, believes Swarthmore is moving in the right direction.
"I think that people have to realize that every opportunity given is also an opportunity lost," says Shulman. "If you're taking somebody because she's a great volleyball spiker, you're not taking some other woman who might be really good at writing computer code."
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