Tom Parker has been involved in the Division III athletic recruiting process at small, elite liberal arts colleges for 25 years, long enough to remember when civility and common sense were the rule.
"Now absolutely everything in athletics has to be regulated, in detail," said Parker, the dean of admissions at Amherst College since 1999. Before that, he spent 19 years in the same position at Williams College.
"Everything," Parker added.
With more than 400 members, Division III is the biggest and most diverse classification in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. There are wide differences in the way these institutions treat recruited athletes during the admissions process. The one rule that binds Division III is the prohibition on athletic scholarships.
For the most selective small colleges and universities - those frequently found at the top of U.S. News and World Report rankings - the advantage accorded a recruited athlete can be difficult to define. Some of the most prominent colleges are as secretive as they are selective about their procedures, frequently breeding mistrust among faculty members, students and peer institutions.
Several years ago, the 11-member New England Small College Athletic Conference (Nescac), which includes Amherst and Williams, adopted systematic restrictions on recruiting.
"The real danger was in not acknowledging that we give preferential treatment to athletes," Parker said. "It engendered a corrosive cynicism. When it was on the table exactly what we do, it wasn't as bad as some faculty thought."
Broadly, Division III colleges are separated into those that use what is customarily called a slots system and those that do not. Slots are reserved for athletes in each freshman class, a specific number that typically represents 15 percent to 30 percent of those admitted. Colleges that do not have a slots system may admit more, or fewer, recruited athletes, but there is no set number.
The New England Small College Athletic Conference uses slots, although its members refer to them as athletic factors. Parker said the maximum number of athletic factors was determined by the number of varsity teams each college fields in the conference.
The formula multiplies the number of teams by two, then adds 14 if there is a football team. A typical total is in the 70's; Amherst, Williams and Wesleyan University have agreed to a limit of 66. Parker said that as recently as the late 1990's, Amherst was admitting 96 athletes.
The conference allows each college to apportion the slots. Some colleges give each nonfootball coach two slots a year and the football coach 14. Many others rotate slots depending on teams' needs.
"We think it's important not to guarantee or allocate slots to any sport or coach," said Ronald D. Liebowitz, president of Middlebury College, where the number is about 74. "They are reserved slots; that's the approach the conference has taken. But how they are distributed is up to admissions."
The conference members have different standards for admission, depending on the colleges' academic standing and class sizes.
Parker said athletes at Amherst were admitted in academic categories called bands. A certain number of recruited athletes (19 in the current freshman class) are permitted to fall into the lowest band, for students with strong high school records in challenging courses and with scores of 1,250 to 1,310 on the two-part College Board exam. The next-highest band required a very strong record and course load and SAT scores from 1,320 to 1,430.
At Amherst, the mean SAT score for athletes filling slots was 60 to 75 points below the mean for the current freshman class, which was 1,442, Parker said.
Some recruited athletes were not assigned slots because their academic credentials were considered indistinguishable from that of the most qualified students who were admitted. Parker said 50 to 60 athletes were enrolled that way, in addition to the 66 slots. About 425 students make up a freshman class.
"The key is that we share all this data with one another in the conference to make sure everyone is in line," Parker said. "Transparency is critical to making it work."
The conference regulations have not, however, eliminated a wariness among many other Division III members about the appropriateness and consequences of a recruiting system with identified slots.
"What I hear back from our coaches is that our system is less automatic than the system used by the Nescacs," said Mike Walsh, athletic director at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, which competes in Division III but does not use slots for athletes. "There's a feeling that if you're on top of one of their coach's lists and there's no smoking gun in your application, you'll be accepted. That's my impression and the impression of other non-Nescac schools."
Several Division III coaches have said that coaches at slots-system colleges are more likely to guarantee admission to prospects to encourage a commitment, especially with a binding early-decision application.
"I've had plenty of kids I'm recruiting call me to say they've been assured a spot by a coach," said Mike Murphy, the men's lacrosse coach at Haverford College, which plays in the Centennial Conference. "This year I had a kid offer to play me the voice mail from the coach telling him that. Whether these coaches have that kind of power or not, the kids believe it."
Parker, who has led a committee of administrators reforming the conference bylaws, said coaches were forbidden to assure athletes of admission.
The conference members may be victims of their own successes. Middlebury has won 24 Division III national championships in seven sports in the last 10 years. Williams has won the last seven Directors' Cups, awarded to the nation's top Division III athletic program.
"Our success is not about slots but about driven, veteran coaches who understand the system and find great students and great athletes," Liebowitz, the Middlebury president, said.
If there is one concept that does seem to unite the small elite colleges of Division III, it is this: Football is the biggest recruiting challenge.
"You just need so many football players to have a competitive team," said Les Poolman, athletic director at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. "And some of them you want to be 260 pounds with good grades and high test scores. It's often a lot easier to get distance runners."