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Scandal reveals 'side door' to top schools: Athletics

Many apply through programs that require enrollment if admitted

Reuters

Actor Lori Loughlin, and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, leave the federal courthouse after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme, in Boston this past April.
Reuters Actor Lori Loughlin, and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, leave the federal courthouse after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme, in Boston this past April.

The University of Michigan, a charter member of the Big Ten, is widely regarded as an athletic powerhouse. Brown University is not.

The Wolverines are a household name and routinely draw national television audiences for football and basketball. Brown’s Bears are not and do not.

But federal data show the Ivy League school equals Michigan on one measure: They each had 910 varsity athletes in 2017.

Because Brown is smaller and more exclusive, that means a far larger share of its coveted admission offers every year — nearly 9 percent — are set aside for recruiting in sports from baseball to water polo.

The athletic portion of admissions for Michigan’s public flagship is 2 percent.

These are two examples among many — drawn from interviews, documents and a Washington Post survey — that illuminate the powerful and pervasive role sports play in admissions to the nation’s most prestigious private colleges and universities.

The admissions bribery scandal unfolding since March has cast a spotlight on the connections between athletic coaches and college gatekeepers.

Some schools acknowledge that a plug from a coach or athletic official can provide a strong “tip” for applicants whose academic accomplishments otherwise might not suffice to ensure admission.

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At the most selective schools, where stellar grades and test scores are a given, that thumb on the scale can be crucial as athletic talent helps applicants stand out.

In the scandal, wealthy parents — including actor Lori Loughlin — are accused of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to help their children use fake athletic credentials to secure entry to prominent universities through what a consultant called “the side door.”

On Wednesday, a former Stanford University sailing coach caught in the scheme, John Vandemoer, was sentenced in Boston to one day of prison for racketeering conspiracy.

But the federal judge in the case deemed the term already served, so he will avoid time behind bars. The Operation Varsity Blues investigation also led to charges against soccer, tennis, water polo and volleyball coaches at various universities.

Colleges say athletic fraud in admissions is rare.

But the Varsity Blues investigation underscores a broader issue — the wide pipeline of legitimate athletic recruits into highly selective schools and the questions it prompts about equity and academic standards.

“America is so enthralled with the celebrity involvement in the scandal and the wealth being thrown around here,” said Gerald Gurney, an assistant education professor at the University of Oklahoma who was a longtime college athletic official.

“What they ought to be talking about, in my judgment, is why is higher education giving authority to an athletic department? Why do they do that? It’s antithetical to the mission of the university.”

The pipeline benefits applicants whose parents can afford to support their children’s athletic development.

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That could mean activities less accessible to those who are poor: joining soccer or lacrosse clubs that travel long distances for matches, participating in niche sports such as rowing and fencing, attending sports camps organized by college coaches, or simply enrolling in an expensive private high school with a constellation of athletic offerings and manicured fields.

Many recruited athletes apply through early decision programs that require them to enroll if admitted. That, too, benefits the wealthy.

Those who are less affluent and aren’t certain to get athletic scholarships often need to apply later and compare financial aid offers.

The annual admission frenzy magnifies the importance of the pipeline.

With admission rates plunging below 30 percent, 20 percent or even 10 percent at highly ranked colleges, students know straight A’s and high SAT or ACT scores aren’t necessarily enough to get into their first choice.

Often, a crucial and perhaps decisive word comes from a coach.

Harvard University, one of the world’s most selective schools, admits fewer than 5 percent of applicants.

But court documents in a lawsuit over Harvard admissions indicate that when an applicant was designated as an athletic recruit during a recent six-year period, the admission rate was 86 percent.

At the University of Southern California, which was rocked by the Varsity Blues scandal, a group representing hundreds of professors petitioned top administrators in May for “a wide-ranging discussion, led by the faculty, on the role of athletics at a major university and its relation to USC’s core mission of the pursuit of truth and knowledge.

Only then can we set reasonable standards for admission of student athletes.”

Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, are each facing two conspiracy charges after allegedly paying $500,000 for their two daughters to win admission to USC as rowing recruits. They pleaded not guilty.

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One of the signers of the faculty letter, USC law professor Ariela Gross, said she was surprised to learn about the importance of athletics in admissions after one of her daughters joined a lacrosse team in ninth grade.

Players were mainly novices.

But by the second year, the coaches were explaining athletic admissions to them, Gross said, “because lacrosse is such a good avenue to top schools. It was a revelation.”

Her daughter did not pursue that route to college.

In 2011, Brown’s president at the time, Ruth Simmons, grew so concerned about the athletic factor that she engineered a 9 percent reduction in admission slots reserved for recruits.

The cut, to 205 a year, was meant “to appropriately rebalance academic goals and athletic interests in the Brown context,” Simmons wrote.

The statement from Simmons provided a rare glimpse of the link between admissions and athletics at a highly competitive school.

Varsity Blues investigators found more: Georgetown University set aside 158 admissions slots a year for recruited athletes; Wake Forest University, 128.

Documents last year from the civil lawsuit, unrelated to the Varsity Blues case, disclosed that Harvard offered admission recently to an estimated 180 recruited athletes a year.

The totals at those three schools represent 9 percent to 11 percent of incoming classes at each school.

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Selective colleges often say they look beyond test scores and grades to build a class of students with diverse skills and interests.

A flutist might draw their eye, or an accomplished rapper, a chess prodigy, a stage actress, or a scholar who is also a caregiver for young siblings or elderly relatives.

But athletics stands out as a marketing and recruiting force. Fervent alumni follow their old teams. Donors support schools with competitive programs.

Many prospective students seek out schools with an athletic ambience, whether they are football or basketball powerhouses or simply offer a broad swath of sporting pursuits.

Many want to play at more than a club or intramural level.

For all those reasons, filling the rosters of soccer, rowing and other varsity sports teams is a larger and more systematic operation within the typical admissions shop than filling the campus orchestra.

That is true regardless of whether a team competes in NCAA Division I, with athletic scholarships often available, or Division III, without them.

Colleges insist admissions officers, not coaches, are in charge.

Christopher Gruber, dean of admissions and financial aid at Davidson College in North Carolina, said coaches routinely consult with him on whether athletes are admissible based on their record as high school juniors.

The admissions shop replies with a red light — no — or a green light well before the recruit files an application.

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“Green comes with a caveat that their grades aren’t going to be dropping,” Gruber said.

To learn more about the athletic factor, the Post surveyed the top 50 national universities and top 25 liberal arts colleges as ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

Most declined to reveal how many recruited athletes they admit, and some denied having any slots for athletic admission.

“We do not set aside slots for athletes,” the University of Florida said.

“Athletics does not have any set aside admission slots,” Emory University said.

However, insiders say selective colleges often use slots — or numeric caps or targets — to track the number of admission offers linked to the recommendations of athletic coaches.

“You’re counting them,” said one former college president, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity. “Enumerating them. Otherwise, if you don’t enumerate them, it gets totally out of control.”

The counts are high at some liberal arts schools.

At Williams, Bowdoin and Amherst colleges, federal data shows at least 30 percent of students are Division III athletes. That share is much higher than the share of total admission offers that go to recruited athletes, for two reasons.

First, athletes enroll at a much higher rate than others offered admission. Second, some walk onto teams without being recruited.

An Amherst report released in 2017 found the college lets in 67 recruits a year whose athletic prowess weighed “prominently” in the admission decision.

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The college also admits another 60 to 90 applicants a year whom coaches for the Amherst Mammoths recommend as excellent athletes.

Taken together, those two groups account for at least 10 percent of annual admission offers and as much as a third of a typical incoming class.

There are about 20 unrecruited “walk-on” athletes per class, the report found, but they usually don’t get much playing time and often drop the sport after their first year.

The report also found a sharp demographic divide: Athletes were far less likely than their classmates to come from low-income backgrounds, to be first in their families to go to college or to be students of color.

To address those issues, Amherst President Biddy Martin wrote in a January 2017 statement as the report was released, the college will need “recruitment strategies that are even more focused and creative.”

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