I’ll be blogging about the Report on Varsity Athletics a lot over the next couple of days. It provides a convenient discussion of what a “tip” is — a term that, as far as I know, was not used publicly at Williams in the 80’s.

The word “tips” is a misnomer, because what are called “tips” do not tip the balance when all other things are equal. Tips more accurately should be seen as “coaches’ preferences.” Coaches are allocated a certain number of choices per year, depending on the sport. These preferences, when ratified by the Admissions office, are what are called “tips.”

In other words, tips are students who would not have gotten in if not for their ability on the field. Williams should end the practice of tips.

The formal process begins with a review of all applications by the Admissions Department, in which two ratings are assigned. The first is the academic ranking on a 1 to 9 scale; the second is the extra-curricular ranking. Williams has, in effect, two kinds of admits. The first are those who are selected on a combination of the academic and extra-curricular ratings. Almost all students with academic rankings of 1 are accepted; about 65% of students with academic ratings of 2 are accepted, with extra-curricular activities often being the deciding factor among academic 2s. The second kind of admits come from tips, who are students admitted for reasons of College policy (for example, athletics and legacies). The College never accepts applicants with an academic ranking of 8 or 9, and does not want too many 6s and 7s.

The report features no discussion of affirmative action at Williams. Reasonable enough — given that the topic here is athletics — but strange given the repeated references to legacy admissions. You can write a report which only discusses athletic admissions or you can write a report that discusses athletic admissions in the context of other sorts of admission preferences. But it seems strange to discuss only some sorts of admission preferences and not others. Then again, there is enough controversial material here already.

The report fails to provide any context concerning the academic ranking system. How different are 1s and 2s from 6s and 7s? Of course, there is no doubt a lot of information that goes into these numbers, but a rough guide — I’d settle for average SAT scores and high school rank — would be useful. Perhaps a lot of the problems cited in the report would go away if the College simply stopped admitting applicants — outstanding athletic ability not withstanding — with academic rankings of 6 or below.

Coaches’ preferences are spots in the incoming class set aside at the outset of the admissions process, with the Athletic Department now receiving 66. It then divvies them among the various teams, with some teams – football, for example – receiving more than other teams. The advantage of the system of coaches’ preferences, which was implemented in the early ’80s, is said to be that it allows coaches to get the players they want, providing they meet the academic standards set by the admissions office. Before the instituting of the coaches’ preference system, the admissions office admitted players, with more or less consultation with coaches (depending on the particular coach), on its own authority. Sometimes the players were not very good, sometimes they were not the players preferred by coaches, and sometimes the players, since admitted through normal channels, chose not to come to Williams. As a result, the College had to admit many more athletes than it needed, and hoped that not too many and not too few in general, not too many or too few for particular teams, and not too many or too few for particular positions on particular teams, would attend Williams. The system was regarded, therefore, as unsatisfactory by both the Athletic Department and the Admissions Office. The current system – by allowing coaches to recommend athletes they prefer, to negotiate with the Admissions office in the event that they want too many weak students, and by limiting coaches to a specific number of spots, even if the admits choose not to attend Williams – promotes predictability and, judging from the coincidence of the coaches choice system and our records, athletic excellence.

Fascinating stuff. There is a great senior thesis in here somewhere. No where does the report mention that all these changes coincided, I think, with the beginning of Richard Nesbitt’s ’74 tenure as Director of Admissions. Say what you will about former Director of Admissions Phil Smith ’55, but tips did not occur on his watch.

The report does not note, although it seems obvious to me, that coaches actually have an incentive to tip extremely weak applicants, applicants who will not be admitted to a school anywhere near as good as Williams. After all, tips are a use it or lose it proposition — coaches have a “specific number of spots, even if the admits choose not to attend Williams.”

So, if you are a coach with the choice between tipping someone who may very well be accepted to Amherst (or Harvard) and someone who probably won’t get in anywhere nearly as “good” as Williams, you have an incentive to tip the latter. This is especially the case if there is a chance that the admissions office might admit the first applicant anyway, even without you using a spot.

My understanding is that the vast majority (greater than 90%?) of tips end up enrolling. Of course, this could be due to the fact that coaches only tip students that they know will attend Williams because they (the coaches) have talked with them and are convinced (correctly) that Williams is their first choice. Still, the incentives are what they are.

In any event, the Ad-Hoc Committee (as well as the College) deserves great credit for laying out the facts of the matter so clearly.

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