Since 1993 — when the NESCAC lifted its ban on teams competing in NCAA postseason play — Middlebury has won 31 national championships. The post-ban period has seen tremendous athletic achievement at Middlebury, coinciding with a dramatic increase in the school’s admissions standards. Though athletic success coupled with rising admissions standards may seem contradictory, the cumulative improvements can be explained by recruiting, both within athletics and in the student population at large.
As the college has cast a worldwide net for prospective students — receiving applications this year from a record 1,800 international students — the athletics department has also increasingly recruited student athletes from outside the Northeast of the United States, deepening the pool of potential recruits and improving not only the standard for athletics at Middlebury, but also the selection process in admissions more generally.
As athletics recruiting plays an increasingly larger role in the admissions process, questions remain as to the nature of recruiting. How does admissions handle the recruiting process? How considerable a pull does athletics have in the admissions process? What percentage of the average incoming class is student athletes, and how did they get to Middlebury? How much money is spent on recruiting trips every year?
Starting the process
On a broad scale, it is difficult to capture the recruiting process anecdotally. Each sport takes a vastly different approach with regard to recruiting. In objective sports, such as swimming and track & field, among others, coaches are able to make evaluations based largely on event times and GPAs and, as a result, can make recruiting decisions from their desks, based on statistics. For coaches of subjective sports, such as lacrosse, basketball or football, however, it is imperative to observe the student athlete, whether on tape or in person at a high school game or at a summer camp for prospective Division III athletes.
“If you’re a lacrosse coach, [recruiting] is not objective, it’s subjective,” said Director of Athletics Erin Quinn. “It’s a big field, flow sport, [with a] small ball, so film is difficult. You watch a ton of film to evaluate talent, and people are sending you DVDs all the time, but you’re going to have to see individuals play in person. Rather than traveling to a lof of high school games, it is more efficient to attend a number of camps in the summer to see a larger number of prospective students at one time.”
Coaches do have a number of resources available to them to aid them in the recruiting process.
“We have a great online database [to track recruits],” acknowledged Senior Women’s Administrator and head women’s lacrosse coach Missy Foote. “The very first thing we have to do is find out whether they look like they’re eligible to apply to Middlebury in terms of their academics, so that’s what our database helps us narrow down in the beginning, and then we’ll watch some video and see what we think, and then we’ll talk to coaches and see what they think and then we’ll go to some events.”
Jeff Brown, the head coach of the men’s basketball team, embarks on a similar recruiting process.
“Even though our target number [of recruits] usually is about four, the recruiting is pretty labor-intensive,” he said. “We get hundreds of inquiries, we spend time in the spring and the summer going to AAU Tournaments that are fairly local, along with some of the camps where we can identify some NESCAC quality talent and approach the recruiting on both ends — some individuals will contact us and initiate the conversation and a lot of times we’ll shoot out emails to prospects that we’ve seen play and get some dialogue started that way.”
Understanding the role travel plays in the recruiting process, the athletics department has a modest fund for which they can cover traveling expenses of coaches to work at summer camps in the Northeast. Quinn named that figure at around $12,000.
“By comparison, the range in the Lvy League spending — and I know they are Division I schools, but they are the Ivy League — is between $650,000 and $900,000 on recruiting travel,” said Quinn.
The Division I impact on Division III recruiting
With larger budgets and fewer restrictions, Division I schools have changed the way Division III schools, and particularly NESCAC schools, have recruited by speeding up the recruiting timeline as recruits in some sports make verbal commitments to those Division I schools earlier in the process.
“By the time [students] have finished their junior year [in high school], a certain percentage of people have already committed to Division I schools,” Quinn said. “So there is a smaller pool of prospective students available, and subsequently your recruiting is more focused.”
Foote, who has been on the women’s lacrosse team’s coaching staff since 1977, has experienced firsthand the increased intensity in Division I recruiting.
“When I first started to recruit players 25 years ago, kids were making their decisions about where to go to college in the summer before their senior year and making their decisions in the fall of their senior year,” Foote sad. “But in the last five years, Division I coaches are recruiting kids earlier and earlier, so there’s a push for Division III coaches to recruit the kids who haven’t been recruited by Division I coaches. Our conference limits us, thankfully — save us from ourselves — to all kinds of recruiting rules, so our timeline has been the same as it has always been.”
NESCAC rules on recruiting
The recruiting process at Middlebury and other NESCAC institutions is overseen not only by the conference but also by its member institutions. Conference rules stipulate that student athletes “should be representative of [NESCAC] student bodies as a whole, both at the point of admission and in their academic performance, preferences and educational outcomes.”
As applicants, therefore, recruited athletes are compared with their non-athlete peers in the NESCAC as a whole.
Quinn emphasized that the athletic sub-class must be representative of the incoming class as a whole. He maintains that no recruited athlete can come from below the lowest tier of regular admits.
Recruiting data is tracked at the conference level and is shared among the athletic directors, presidents and admissions deans of each NESCAC school in order to create an open, fair atmosphere in athletic competition. The information is not available to the public.
Recruited athletes and the admissions process
While the NESCAC rules on recruiting shape the admissions process at Middlebury, a number of questions remain. First, how does Middlebury define a recruited athlete?
According to Dean of Admissions Greg Buckles, a recruited athlete is defined as “a student who has been formally recruited and given an evaluation by a coach,” which is then sent on to the admissions office. And while the percentage of admitted recruited athletes has dropped as the overall number of applicants has risen in recent years — admitted recruited athletes make up 12 percent of the Class of 2016 — the acceptance rate of recruited athletes has largely remained constant, at about 50 to 60 percent, according to Buckles.
Though admissions rates for student athletes are significantly higher than rates in regular admissions, there is a considerable dialogue that takes place between potential recruits and coaches before the formal admissions process begins, giving these applicants and the coaches a better idea of where they stand in the eyes of the admissions department.
“There’s a lot of pre-vetting,” Quinn said. “There are a lot of coaches working with admissions officers saying, ‘Does this person look like an acceptable [applicant]?’ What you don’t want is a situation in which, for example, [the tennis coach] recruits 25 tennis players, they all go into the general admissions pool and 12 of them are admitted, or none of them are admitted.”
Case in point, Bob Ritter, the head coach of the football team, is in contact over the phone with more than 800 players before “running about 250 students’ transcripts and test scores by admissions to get an idea where they would fit in the class,” Ritter explained. Two hundred of those recruits will then visit the campus before Ritter and his assistant coaches whittle the class down to just a handful of players — with an average recruiting class in the teens.
The pre-application discourse between coaches and athletes raises another significant question: how does recruitment in athletics differ from the application process for other extracurricular areas, such as the performing arts?
“A student who would be rated significantly highly in the arts and film or video, music, dance, studio art — that would be a significant factor [in the admissions process] because those are rated by the actual departments,” Buckles said. “It’s not as formal and the volume isn’t as high, unlike with coaches where it’s a significant part of their jobs. [Athletic recruiting] is a little more structured and formalized.”
“All our conversation with admissions does is help admissions understand that this person has something that someone else does not have,” said Foote. “We can help them understand that this person brings something that could really help us lacrosse-wise.”
The College Sports Project
Given the College’s recruiting goals and the standards created by the NESCAC, are student athletes truly representative of the overall student body? After arriving at school do they perform to the same standard as non-athletes? While the raw data demonstrating academic performance among athletes is not available to the public at large, Charles A. Dana Professor of Mathematics John Emerson, principal investigator for the College Sports Project (CSP), a study of academic performance by student athletes and non-athletes at 76 NCAA Division III colleges and universities, has shared some summary findings. The goals of the study were to determine if student athletes across Division III schools are representative of the overall student bodies at their respective schools, and to prove college presidents with information that could aid them in bringing intercollegiate sports programs into better allignment with their own core missions.
The data, taken from more than 39,000 students beginning with the 2005-06 academic year and cumulating after the 2009-10 year, demonstrated a significant difference in academic performance between recruited athletes and non-athletes, leading Emerson to determine that underperformance among recruited athletes indeed exists after controlling for explanatory variables such as high school GPAs, SAT scores, gender, race and ethnicity. Further, these disparities tend to be greater at competitive schools like Middlebury.
“On a scale of 0 to 100, where 50 percentile units is the middle student’s GPA, the difference between recruited male athletes and male non-athletes is typically eight to 10 percentile units for all 76 CSP institutions,” Emerson wrote in an email. “If we limit the comparison to selective colleges like Middlebury College, the differences can run to 20 percentile units or more. On a four-point GPA scale, the averages for male recruited athletes can differ by three-tenths of a GPA unit or more.”
Taking these discrepancies into consideration, have selective schools such as NESCAC schools made strides to improve the overall representativeness of student athletes in relation to the broader student body? Emerson believes that data points to future improvements.
“I believe that quite a few institutions have been trying to [make improvements] and I have seen some positive evidence of gains here at Middlebury over the past five years,” he wrote. “But I know that there are pressures that work against maintaining the NESCAC ideal that intercollegiate athletes should resemble other students in their academic and other characteristics and achievements. Some empirical evidence from subsets of the colleges as well as from individual sports suggests it is possible to have intercollegiate teams whose academic achievement is comparable to that of other students, and that finding gives reason for optimism.”
Diversity in recruiting
Recently the NESCAC has considered increasing the amount of funding athletics departments can allocate for recruiting travel. One of the prevailing strengths of increasing the recruiting travel budget at Middlebury is to increase the pool of potential student athletes that Middlebury can recruit. And while a larger pool of recruits promises better athletes, it might also lead to increased diversity among the recruiting class.
“Competitively, having a bigger pool of people to choose from gives you a better chance of better students and better players,” Quinn said. “But it also provides a broader pool of talent to choose the most diverse group possible in a lot of different ways. It is challenging to meet our various goals without some travel and generally without a concerted effort at recruiting.”
If minimal recruiting funds restrict the athletics department’s recruiting base to the Northeast, Middlebury, and the NESCAC at large, run the risk of creating bifurcated student bodies — student populations in which non-athletes are representative of not just the entire United States, but also a considerable international population and athletes are made up of students almost exclusively from the Northeast.
“I think of [recruiting] as a really good thing,” Quinn said. “It’s consistent with what Middlebury College does [and] we do it within the context of that philosophy. I think we all should be really proud of the people that we get here and we would not likely get many of them without recruiting. This isn’t only about winning games, it’s about our overall program, and helping student athletes decide if this is the right place for them. Only a concerted effort in recruiting is going to identify the very best of those [people].”
Link to Article: NESCAC Recruiting - Breaking Down the Recruiting Process