As five top liberal arts colleges cut back on the number of students the schools admit primarily for their athletic skill, Yale football coach Jack Siedlecki said the Ivy League also may reduce the number of slots reserved for football players whose athletic talent is the deciding factor in their admission.
The five schools — Williams, Amherst, Wesleyan, Bowdoin and Middlebury colleges — are members of the New England Small College Athletic Conference.
Back when Yale had only male students, Siedlecki said, regulations allowed 100 football player admissions in every incoming class. That number was later reduced to 50, then in 1994 to the current 35 slots. Siedlecki said the Ivy League is considering further reductions.
Siedlecki said there was resentment among the coaches each time the numbers were cut, but said he thinks Yale has achieved a good balance in the recruiting and admission of athletes.
“We’re all under pressures from our admissions deans to make sure our kids are competitive academically with the other students here,” Siedlecki said. “In general we’ve been pretty fortunate. They do well in the classroom as well as on the field.”
Siedlecki, who coached football at Amherst for four years before coming to Yale, said the predominance of recruited athletes is magnified on smaller college campuses.
“The thing in the NESCAC that you’ve got to understand is how small those schools are,” Siedlecki continued. “You’re talking 300 kids in a class; if you take 35 kids, that’s more than 10 percent of your class.”
James Kolesar, the director of public affairs at Williams, said that Williams, Amherst and Wesleyan are going to reduce the number of slots reserved for recruited athletes to 66, down from 72 at Williams and 75 at Amherst. For football players, 14 of the 66 slots will be reserved. Bowdoin administrators did not return phone calls, but Amherst Director of Admissions Tom Parker said Bowdoin agreed to reduce its reserved slots by 20 percent and Middlebury by 10 percent.
“Within our little conference [this is] pretty significant stuff,” Parker said.
These changes continue years of incremental cuts in the number of students admitted for whom athletic skill is the deciding factor in their admission. Amherst has gone from 94 to 75 to 66 slots in a four-year period, Parker said.
And Swarthmore College took the even more drastic step of abolishing its football and wrestling programs entirely in December 2000.
Parker said the latest wave of NESCAC cutbacks was spurred by the publication of a book by William Bowen and James Shulman called “The Game of Life.”
“[Bowen and Shulman] looked at about 30 years of data, the admission of athletes and their performance and underperformance and what do they do later in life,” Parker said. “[They] came to a set of conclusions that really concerned the NESCAC presidents in terms of the degree to which the schools of NESCAC and other schools were dipping, the degree to which [athletes] were not performing or underperforming predicted GPAs.”
After conducting their own study, the NESCAC presidents decided it was important to slow the trend of admitting so many students for whom athletics would be the primary extracurricular activity, said Michael Schoenfeld, Middlebury’s dean of enrollment and planning.
E.J. Mills, the head football coach at Amherst, said he doesn’t think the changes will hinder his ability to build a strong team.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think it’s as drastic as people are making it out to be,” Mills said. “Amherst has done this over the past five to six years already, so realistically when you look at all the data, we’re pretty much where we want to be.”
Schoenfeld said Middlebury’s primary goal is balance.
“The effect of reducing the numbers is that there are more students with other extracurriculars,” Schoenfeld said. “It will not mean that we end up with fewer athletes or athletes of lesser ability necessarily, but that the athletes are more representative of the student body.”