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What is a “tip”?

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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#1 Comment By Aidan On April 14, 2004 @ 11:14 am

…do you know a tip?

I think that’s the question you could be asking. I’m not sure how ‘tips’ are any different from legacy admissions, affirmative action, except that tips have earned their spot by dint of actually being good at something, instead of the accident of birth. But more pertinently, I know some ‘tips,’ kids that wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for their sports affiliation. I can unequivocally say that this college would be far poorer without them.

Let’s face it, without sports, Williams would be another nerd greenhouse like Swarthmore, packed to the gills with suburban white kids with activist dreams, struggling to overachieve. Part of Williams’ charm is the diversity of opinions, the presence of kids who are willing to have fun, the diversity in viewpoints you get from people who spend a lot of time physically involved.

There are tons of bland, innoffensive, high achieving high school honor student types. They kiss up to Mr. Black, they do extra credit, they carefully compile verdant GPAs, and they shouldn’t be anywhere near this institution. I’d like to see more people who took risks, people with real talent, people with leadership. If that’s 100 points lower on the SAT, who gives a fuck?

#2 Comment By David Kane On April 14, 2004 @ 11:57 am

If “people who took risks, people with real talent, people with leadership” == tips, then you might have a point. But what evidence of that is there? Do tips take more risks than other applicants? Have tips demonstrated more leadership than other applicants? [Note that being captain of your high school team — as was I — hardly counts since this almost always goes to the best players, regardless of leadership abilities.]

I think that the answer to both is No. Of course, it is true by definition that tips have more athletic talent than other students, and I could imagine a case for reform whereby Williams increased the weight it placed on talent — athletic, musical, whatever — of all sorts relative to academics. But, by all accounts, the current system places extreme weight on superior athletic talent and very little on other sorts.

If all we were talking about was 100 points on the SAT, I would agree that this is a non-issue. But I don’t believe that it is just 100 points. I think — I am looking for the actual data — that average tip has a combined SAT score that is several hundred points lower than the average non-tip. The Athletic Report makes for some chilling reading on the effect that these sorts of differences can have on the quality of education at Williams.

I am all for diversity of opinion and physical activity, but would a world without tips lack either? We would still have players, just smarter ones who did not win as many games.

#3 Comment By Eric Smith ’99 On April 14, 2004 @ 12:51 pm

As I have said before on this issue, since I did sports at Williams, perhaps I was a tip – I honestly don’t know (do they tell you?). So perhaps I’m biased on the issue, but I don’t see that it matters too much without first seeing more data.

Where is the data that says tips come in with N points less on their GPA and/or SAT/ACT scores?
Where is the data that says that they get lower grades than their non-tip teammates (since you would want to compare other athletes to get a valid pool right)?
Where is the data that shows that they somehow detract from the student experience? Do they distract other students? Do they damage the school?

And then can it be quantified the value added of having winning sports teams? Would Williams get fewer quality students if it had worse sports teams? Would some number of students be more likely to go to some other school if they for whatever reason felt the athletics program at Williams was sub par (as opposed to our current status of constantly winning the Sears Trophy)?
Are winning sports teams advertising for Williams? When someone comes first at NCAA nationals in XC and gets their face in Sports Illustrated, does that increase the exposure of a school that many people (myself included in high school) hadn’t heard of?
When Sports Illustrated and ESPN covered the Williams/Amherst rivalry which certainly gave them each some exposure – would that have been different if each of the teams were quite poor in quality of play?

Like I said – I’m probably biased in thinking that the tips are a key part of any academic consideration since who knows, maybe I was one.
But it seems that just writing them off without more data seems a bit daft at this stage.

#4 Comment By Sam Crane On April 14, 2004 @ 2:36 pm

Here’s a faculty view, I think one shared by many of my colleagues in the Humanities and Social Sciences (I can’t speak for Div III…).

One of the most depressing aspects of life at Williams is the lack of genuine intellectual curiousity or, at least, the willingness to pursue intellectual curiosity, among students. I know, I know, critics will fire back with points about academic accomplishment of various and sundry students. Granted. It is a cultural thing. My overwhelming impression after fifteen years here is that the general feeling among many (not all) students is that academics is something you just have to get through. Their time is carefully allocated among sports, other extracuricular activities, partying and studying, with the latter being pigeonholed into just enough time to get their assignments done. I have read so many papers obviously written at the last minute, I despair that the idea of proof-reading and revision is going the way of drive-in movies. It is also my impression, gleaned from reports from the honor and discipline committee, that cheating and plagarism have increased in the past decade.

So, what is the connection to sports here? I think sports, and the importance attached to sports – especially as seen in preferential admissions policies – contribute to the deflation of academic life outside the classroom. It is not just sports. I suspect American culture at large, in its hyper-hurry-up obssession with the next cool thing, works against a slower, more contemplative life. In any event, sports is part of the problem here.

I am something of a realist, however, and would argue that the best thing to do right now is cut the number of sports tips in half. Right now. And then let’s give them to performing artists, who might just be wacky and creative enough to keep Aidan happy…

#5 Comment By David Kane On April 14, 2004 @ 3:32 pm

Keeping Aidan happy is high on my priority list.


Side note: One way to get your students to take their work more seriously is to make their work more public. Have it be a requirement that student papers (and your comments!) are posted on a web site for all to read. Scholarship is a public activity. Grades could, of course, still be kept private. I predict that your students would take their writing more seriously if they knew that someone in addition to you would be reading it.

Culture are tough to change, but there is no better place to start than in your own classroom.

Just an idea . . .

#6 Comment By Noah Smith-Drelich ’07 On April 15, 2004 @ 3:48 pm

Professor Crane (are you a professor?) —

Aas a current Williams student and a prospective Div 1 or Div 2 major I’d like to respond to your post. I’m actually fairly appalled that you feel this way about the Williams student body. Possibly this was true 15 years, possibly it was true 5 years ago, but it is not true anymore. As a first-year student I can really only speak for the frosh class. The group of frosh I have interacted with since I’ve come to Williams have all been incredibly involved with their academics as well as their extracurricular activities. I think one thing that makes Williams special among colleges is that Ephs tend to be passionate about MANY things, including schoolwork. Unfortunately, as a passion for many things takes more time than a passion for one single thing does, and there are only 24 hours in a day, often papers will be completed on a last-minute basis. The general sentiment among students is sadness when this must be done–nobody likes blowing off a paper or assignment. However, with students as involved as Williams students (and no, I’m not just referring to athletics), this must be done on occassion. Possibly there is more of a problem among upperclassmen. My personal impression of the student body is that the younger classes seem to be a bit more “intellectual” than the older classes. This could be because Williams is significantly more selective now than it was 4 years ago (18% acceptance rate compared to 26%), or it be becauses the athletic culture on campus drains all intellectual excitement out of students. At the risk of upsetting some older Ephs, I’m going to have to go with the former reason…Williams is rapidly becoming less of a “jock” school and more of a school for the well-rounded student.

On the subject of Tips…if you’re Tipped, you know it–I have friends who were tipped. I think an ideal situation for Williams would be if ALL colleges in the country stopped giving acceptance preference to unqualified athletes. However, until that happens, we must Tip athletes to field competitive sports teams, and I DO think competitive sports teams are beneficial to the school.

#7 Comment By Sam Crane On April 15, 2004 @ 9:57 pm


I have been happily on leave this semester, so I have not had the pleasure of interacting with this year’s first-year class. I hope you are right. I hope that when I return to teaching in the Fall I will be amazed at the change. I am generally an optimist and believe that things can improve. If you are right, it will mean a reversal of a trend which I – impressionably and unscientifically – sensed was worsening in the past decade.