Selling the academic benefits of attending a school like Yale is a fairly easy task, but it is more difficult to sell athletic benefits when you are competing with athletic and academic powerhouses like Stanford or Duke.
After receiving early action applications nearly a month ago, many coaches at Yale have finished a fair amount of their athletic recruiting for the class of 2009. Though the recruiting process poses different challenges for each sport, all Eli teams have the responsibility of finding young men and women who will contribute to play on the field or court, as well as life in the classroom. And because the Ivy League does not allow scholarships, the coaches also have to find athletes who are not seeking an athletic scholarships. It is not an easy task, but many involved in the process say it generally works out for the best.
Yale Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw said athletes make up an important part of a well-rounded class of students.
“I think athletics is certainly an important part of the Yale tradition along with part of its history,” Shaw said. “We treat it with respect and reverence. We have 35 intercollegiate sports, and we recruit for all of them. The key is to attract students who are academically qualified, but we also have great respect for the scholar-athlete.”
Shaw said that the pool of recruited athletes is limited only by the high academic standards, and that all the coaches understand such constraints when working with the admissions office.
Academic qualification for Ivy League admissions in general — for athletes and non-athletes alike — is determined by the Academic Index (AI). The AI is a formula that combines high school rank, GPA and standardized tests such as the SAT and SAT II subject tests. It is represented on a scale from 1 to 240, with 240 being the best.
For athletic recruiting, the AI of each student is used to ensure that every athlete meets the minimum requirements of the Ivy League. According to former Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College Michele Hernandez in her book “A Is for Admission,” for the class of 2001, the AI cutoff for athletes in the Ancient Eight was set at 169 compared to an average in the 200s. If a school wants an athlete whose AI is lower than this, it has to present the candidate’s file to an all Ivy meeting with a sufficient explanation supported by the dean of admissions. The academic regulations vary slightly sport to sport but are especially different for sports that bring in money for the university like football. For these sports, Hernandez writes, the average team AI must be not more than one standard deviation away from the University’s average AI.
The whole process involves a lot of number crunching, making it difficult to come to a judgement on the academic qualifications of an athlete. In 2001-2002, for example, a study by Yale University showed that student-athletes on athletics-aid scored approximately 90 points lower on standardized tests than did freshmen overall.
Athletic Director Tom Beckett, who is closely involved in the recruiting process with the admissions office, said there is a lot of pressure on coaches to find the right recruits.
“The challenge of finding good student-athletes is no small task,” Beckett said. “Doing that on a regular basis is difficult.”
Shaw said there is no particular sport that has the hardest job in satisfying the Ivy League’s and Yale’s academic requirements.
“It is a challenge for coaches across the board that they can identify students that we are going to consider competitive,” Shaw said. “Everybody understands what the expectations are. Not all students that are identified by coaches get in.”
But finding appropriate students is not the only thing that takes time. Coaches also have to sift through the many high school athletes around the country who will make an impact as Bulldogs and also want to be Bulldogs.
Jack Siedlecki, head coach of the football team, said that his coaching staff makes the job easier, especially now that the team’s geographical recruiting areas have changed in the eight years he has been here.
“It is hard to build a rapport with high school coaches, and they [the coaching staff] have done a great job with that,” Siedlecki said. “A lot has to do with staff continuity. We have had a really good transition with Matt Dence in Texas and Duane Brooks in Tennessee.”
Dence and Brooks are both coaches for the football team.
Right now, the football team has athletes from 29 different states. This year, the 21 players from Texas dominate the roster. Siedlecki also said that coach Larry Ciotti, formerly a famous high school football coach in Connecticut, has been key in recruiting athletes from the nearby area. The team currently has 13 players from Connecticut.
While the football team is well known for its tradition as a strong varsity sport, other sports do not have that foundation to build on when reaching out to recruits. Despite years of success on the waters, the Yale sailing team has not always been a varsity sport. Women’s and coed sailing became a varsity sport in 2002 but had to deal with less official recruiting as a club sport before that.
Head coach Zack Leonard, who came to Yale four and a half years ago, said Yale’s location in the most competitive district for sailing — New England — has made recruiting easier.
“In sailing, we have a great setup in terms of facilities and sailing conditions at our site,” Leonard said. “Add the Yale education and it’s not hard to sell people. As a club it was a bit harder to convince people to come to Yale simply because the coaches of varsity teams at other Ivy schools would constantly tell the recruit that we were just a club. Being varsity is important to high school students. It gives them the feeling that you are more serious about competing.”
Zach Brown ’08, one of the nation’s top sailing recruits, said Leonard does a good job establishing a relationship with recruits before they get to Yale.
“I think he does the best job,” Brown said. “I think [Leonard] gets a good feel for if they [the recruits] are going to be capable of handling the work load and then lets the admissions office shift through and look at their background and how they are going to contribute.”
While some coaches need the admissions office to aid them in putting together an academically strong class of freshmen athletes, there are some sports that have an easier time. Mark Young, head coach of the women’s cross country and track and field teams, has been at the helm of consistently high academically-achieving teams. Last year the women’s cross country team was awarded the Richard Brodhead award for having the top team grade point average.
Young said his runners, as well as the runners on the men’s cross country team, are good students because, as effective distance runners, they are used to being very committed to doing the things that they have to do on their own, a quality that translate well to academics.
“[Runners] know we have a good program and more than that they know Yale is a great school,” Young said. “A lot of kids that end up on the teams make their own inquiry. When they do that they frequently let us know their academic qualifications. If not, that’s the first thing we ask.”
Young said the harder challenge is selling Yale to the top runners across the country, which includes enticing recruits without scholarship money to offer.
“The competition amongst Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Duke for the same kids is fierce,” Young said. “For us the challenge is getting people to come. Whether they can afford to come, they are still turning down scholarship opportunities at other schools. Overcoming those things are the bigger hurdles.”
With the lack of scholarship opportunity, the many academic restrictions, and the general challenge of finding students who want to come to the Elm City, recruiting at Yale has never been an easy task. And last year, it became even more difficult with the number of applications Yale received.
“We had historic highs last year and there’s a lot of demand for Yale,” Shaw said. “We had our lowest admission rate in history. No constituency is happy and I can understand that if the rate of admissions is low … everybody has to compete for a spot in the class. Our goal is to make a class with strengths in many areas. Athletics plays a big role in the student undergraduate experience. It’s an important characteristic along with many others. We do the best job we can.”
Despite the challenges associated with the recruiting system here, many student-athletes say they are happy with the job that the coaches and administration do in recruiting.
Susie Starr ’08, a goalie who applied early action to Yale and was also recruited by Indiana and Wake Forest, said her decision was made more difficult because Yale cannot offer scholarships like the other two schools can.
“I looked more at the soccer and academic life I wanted to have at college,” Starr said. “Indiana and Wake Forest don’t offer the education that Yale does.”
Starr, who also works in the football offices, said she thinks the coaches in general at Yale focus on finding good students in order to continue the tradition of academic excellence.
“I listen to the way the coaches talk and they always talk about academics first,” Starr said. “They look at good players, but they also want good students that can handle the course load that Yale offers. That is a great thing and that’s what I really like about Yale.”