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 9.

“Recruited athletes not only enter selective colleges with weaker academic records than their classmates as a whole but that, once in college, they ‘consistently underperform academically even after we control for standardized test scores and other variables,’” Edward Fiske wrote in a 2001 book review for The Times.

This might have been true in 2001, but, even then, I have serious doubts about the quality of the statistical work underlying these claims. But it was never really true at Williams. The 2002 MacDonald Report (pdf) concluded that “Athletes, to summarize, achieve lower grades than other students overall, but achieve about the same grades as students with similar academic ratings.”

It could be that Williams was a different sort of school than the others used in “The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values,” the book reviewed by Fiske in the Times. I think it more likely that authors Shulman and Bowen just did sloppy empirical work.

But, wouldn’t you know it, we now know more than we did 20 years ago! Consider this 2009 Report (pdf).

We find that the gap in academic performance, as judged by grade point average, has narrowed substantially overall and has essentially disappeared for female athletes and for male athletes in low-profile sports. The gap for male athletes in high-profile varsity sports (which we defined as football,ice hockey, basketball, and baseball; other studies include different sports, such as wrestling and lacrosse) appears to be narrowing, but persists even after we adjust for 1) academic qualifications prior to enrolling at Williams College, 2) socio-economic status, and 3) the individual’s year (e.g.sophomore, senior). Thus academic under-performance by male varsity athletes in high-profile sports continues, and cannot be attributed to academic credentials prior to Williams or to socioeconomic status.

The narrowing of the overall academic performance gap since 2002 could be due to any of number of factors (perhaps including changes in team culture during the past decade) but one likely factor is the change in admissions standards for athletic “tips”. The minimum qualifications required for admission to Williams have been raised during the intervening years, and are continuing to rise.Thus varsity athletes’ academic preparation for Williams College is increasingly similar to that of the rest of the student body. Our data indicate that academic under-performance by male varsity athletes playing high-profile sports can largely be attributed to those who are less well-prepared academically for Williams, and thus it is our sense that the “raising of the floor” for admissions tips may have been an important factor in reducing overall difference in the GPAs of varsity athletes and non-athletes.

This is somewhat sloppy and confusing. But the key point is that, for 28 of the 32 varsity sports teams at Williams, the average academic performance of athletes is indistinguishable from that on non-athletes. That is a fairly different message from “consistently underperform academically.”

Again, there are a lot of subtleties and we would all like more recent data. And it could be that Williams is different than other schools. But for Leonhardt and others to continue to pretend that athletes in general are some weird outlier group on campus, academically disconnected from their peers, is just nonsense. Might there have been, and still be, issues with the football team and men’s ice hockey? Sure! Yet those are precisely the high profile sports which were not involved in the current scandal.

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