New York Times opinion columnist David Leonhardt linked to EphBlog in his column a few weeks ago about the enfolding admissions bribery scandal. Thanks! Alas, Leonhardt is one of the more clueless education reporters, a not particularly clued-in breed, as we have documented again and again and again. Is a link from him something to be proud of? Either way, his article merits 10 days of discussion. Day 3.

As we have discussed over the last two days, Leonhardt — and every elite college president, including Maud Mandel — does not want a system in which only academics is used for admissions because it would admit too few African-Americans. Nor do they want a system with explicit racial norms, even if such a system is the easiest way to solve that problem. This is the necessary background to any discussion of athletic admissions. Leonhardt writes:

It’s time to end the extreme special treatment that colleges give to so many of them. College sports can still exist without it.

EphBlog agrees, at least in the context of making Williams the best college in the world. But EphBlog also wants to decrease the (even greater!) advantages given to racial minorities. Leonhardt doesn’t want to do that. Leonhardt still wants Yale/Williams to have non-trivial numbers of African-Americans, without making it overly obvious how academic talent varies across races. Large admissions advantages for athletes achieves that goal. Consider the latest Williams common data set:

The bottom 20% of the Williams class, about 100 students, is overwhelming composed of three groups: recruited athletes, Blacks/Hispanics, and low income. (To be honest, I am not sure how large that last group is and, certainly, there is a great deal of overlap among racial minorities and low income students.) What would happen if Leonhardt’s proposal were instituted at Williams, if recruited athletes got no more of an advantage in admissions than great violin players?

1) The bottom of the Williams class would become dominated by racial minorities, in a way which made the magnitude of the preferences they receive obvious to everyone. Athletes, who are overwhelming white, now add a highly desirable degree of racial diversity to the set of students who struggle academically at Williams. Look at the students on academic probation, the bottom 5 students in a given introductory course, students with GPAs below 3.0, today, you will see white/brown/black (and a handful of Asian) students. And that is a pretty desirable state of affairs.

2) The gap between the average academic performance of black/Hispanic students and white/Asian students would increase. With athletic preferences, the average white/Asian academic credentials (high school grades and test scores) and Williams performance (GPA, thesis honors) is X above the average credentials/performance for black/Hispanic students. If we get rid of athletic preferences, X gets (much?) larger because we replace all the 1350 athletes with 1450 athletes. Since there are 100 recruited athletes, only a few of whom are black/Hispanic, this will have a big impact on X.

Leonhardt is correct that we can still have college athletics with much smaller athletic preferences in admissions, especially if all the schools in a given league (e.g., NESCAC, Ivy) change their policies at the same time. But he has failed to confront the implications for that change in the racial variation in academic credentials/performance. Does David Leonhardt really want a Yale at which 90% of the students in the bottom of the class academically are black/Hispanic? If he does, then fine! But he ought to explain to his readers that this would be the inevitable result of significantly decreasing the preferences given to athletes.

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