We've all heard the stereotype: A college athlete with all the athletic credentials but none of the academic ones is handed an admission to play for a big-time program. And while the admissions process remains something of a mystery to those outside Bendetson Hall, Tufts Director of Athletics Bill Gehling says that Tufts and the 10 other NESCAC schools have avoided this stereotype.
"They're not admitting kids who are athletes but don't belong here," Gehling said. "It's as simple as that."
Tufts' high academic admissions standards present yet another obstacle as coaches look to attract quality athletes. Although there is certainly no lack of capable athletes who wish to study and play at Tufts, being recruited as a Jumbo and actually getting the thick admissions envelope are two different things.
"All admissions decisions are made by [the department of] admissions," said Bill Gehling, who is in his seventh year in the position following a 20-year career coaching at Tufts. "Coaches are told 'no' way more than they're told 'yes.'"
Coaches and athletic directors in many of the big-name Div. I programs have a sizable influence in getting an athlete's application approved. While making clear that he has no direct experience with Div. I, Gehling painted a different picture of the Halligan-Bendetson relationship, as compared to what might exist between athletics and admissions departments in Div. I schools.
Gehling called Tufts coaches "advocates" for an athlete to be admitted, while speculating that coaches at high-profile schools might play the role of admissions officers for athletes.
"My guess is that within certain parameters, Div. I coaches are, in essence, making admissions decisions," Gehling said. "They probably have some sort of baseline they know they need to be above, but my guess is that Mike Krzyzewski at Duke probably gets the kid in that he wants to get in. But it's above some threshold; it's not in his best interest to have somebody come in and flunk out."
All NESCAC schools adhere to the same admissions standards, as articulated out by the league rulebook, but each approaches the question of athlete admissions differently.
As detailed in a 2002 article published by Kay Hawes of the NCAA, Williams uses a system of 66 athletic "tips," which are defined as "admissions slots or 'athlete-admits' that permit coaches to designate athletes with good, but perhaps not exceptional, academic records for admission."
Although there is no system of that nature in place at Tufts, Gehling believes that "tips" are a good way of looking at an admissions decision for all students, not simply athletes.
"I actually like this word, because I think in a sense you can talk about every single admission to Tufts [for both athletes and non-athletes] as a result of a tip," Gehling said. "Something tips the scale in [a candidate's] favor. Usually it's not the academics; the academics kind of get you on the scale. Tufts denies an awful lot of people with great academics, and there is something in the admission of the kid that got accepted that tipped the scale in their favor and something in the application of someone that didn't get in that maybe tipped it the other way.
"In that sense, yes, there are tips; athletics plays a role and hopefully may be one of the deciding factors in helping a particular kid get admitted," Gehling said.
According to Hayes' article, the Williams athletic department cut back from a 72 to a 66-"tip" system, as Williams attempted to ensure its continued academic integrity, possibly in response to some critical essays that had surfaced about Div. III athletics.
James Shulman and William Bowen's 2001 book "The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values" was an in-depth study of the effect of athletic programs on admissions and academics in many of the nation's best colleges and universities within all Divisions, including several NESCAC schools. The results, which suggested that Div. III schools were not wholly immune from the troubling trends of Div. I admissions, prompted a response from the league.
President Bacow, along with the other NESCAC Presidents, issued a statement requesting a follow-up study on the league-member institutions, stating that "while we admire the achievements and talents of our student-athletes and reaffirm the educational value of athletic competition, we are concerned that the competitive pressures of intercollegiate athletics ... risk distorting the place and purposes of athletic participation in our institutions."
Bowen and Shulman's findings, while not damning, raised key issues. The study reports that while admitted athletes have similar graduation rates to non-athletes, they enter with average lower SAT scores and tend to under-perform during their career, doing more poorly academically than non-athletes with comparable incoming test scores.
While Tufts was not included in the study because of its comparatively larger size, one of Gehling's first moves upon taking the AD job in 1999 was a study of the academic performance of Tufts athletes. In the particular year of data he studied, student-athletes actually outperformed the rest of the student body in the classroom, and a smaller percentage of athletes were on academic probation than the student body at large.
While Gehling conceded that these results are not consistent each year, he said that the study confirmed that athletes are a reflection of the student body in general.
"I [conducted the study] because my experience [as a coach] had been that the student-athletes that I had coached were student-athletes in the best sense of the word," Gehling said. "They are reflective of the rest of the student body, and the study found that."
Gehling is well aware that recruiting plays a much larger role today than it did in his early years as a coach at Tufts and that sports might play a larger role in a student-athlete's life than in the past, but he compares sports to the way other activities have changed over the generations.
The reality is recruiting has increased, without a doubt," the athletic director said. "The reality is that student-athletes spend more time on their sport now than they did 20 years ago. That's really not just a reflection of a change in athletics but a change in our culture. There's a greater degree of specialization. I would suspect that you might find that the a cappella groups spending more time on their love than they did 20 years ago [as an undergraduate at Tufts, Gehling was a member of the Beelzebubs]. It's a sign of our time."
In the end, Gehling sees recruiting and athletics as just one more way for Tufts to get the highest-quality students and student-athletes admitted to the University.
"The reality is Tufts has become a much more competitive school to get into, for athletes and non-athletes," Gehling said. "The positive side to that is that it's an indication that it's a much more popular school than it once was. Hopefully, that means more top-quality student-athletes will be interested in a school like Tufts than might have been the case before."
Link to Article: NESCAC Recruiting - Tufts - Admissions using Athletic Tips