While the recent decisions to eliminate early admissions at Harvard and Princeton were aimed at leveling the academic playing field for lower-income applicants, they have also potentially tilted the athletic playing field in favor of the rest of the Ancient Eight.
Administrators, coaches and athletes around the Ivy League are now left to gauge how the changes could impact recruiting practices, which rely in part on October “likely” letters — telling recruits they will almost certainly be accepted in December — and early acceptances. Coaches at both Harvard and Princeton, who said they have heard little from their respective admissions offices since the announcements, said they doubt much will change in their recruiting success. But Bulldog coaches and athletes said they expect the elimination of early admissions to put both Harvard and Princeton at a serious disadvantage.
Harry Parker, head coach of Harvard’s men’s heavyweight crew program and a four-decade veteran of the college recruiting scene, said both the Crimson and Tigers are looking at possible strategies to maintain competitive recruiting practices.
“I think it’s an area of concern,” he said. “It will depend entirely on how willing possible recruits will be to pass up early acceptance at our competing schools to apply regular decision to Harvard or Princeton. It would help a lot if Yale were to do the same thing. We’re hoping they do.”
Since its inception, early admission has evolved to become a valuable recruiting tool. Coaches like to know where their recruiting class stands as soon as possible, and many athletes like to get the admissions process over with quickly. Because Harvard’s Early Action system did not require students to attend if accepted, Harvard could depend on early admissions as a means of securing athletes less reliably than Princeton, whose binding Early Decision policy guaranteed matriculation.
Coaches at Harvard and Princeton said their admissions offices have not yet informed their athletics departments of any specific recruiting changes. Jerry Price, Princeton’s director of athletic communications, said the whole department must simply wait and see.
“The administration is very sensitive to the role admissions plays in athletics,” he said. “It’s too early to know, too early to see how it will play out. I am sure [Princeton President] Shirley Tilghman has a rudimentary idea of the process that will develop, but she hasn’t informed me yet.”
While the importance of early applications varies from sport to sport, almost every coach contacted said he or she preferred to have recruits apply early. Barbara Reinalda, head coach of the Yale women’s softball team, said the process helps Ivy League universities compete with scholarship-wielding competitors.
“We don’t make it mandatory that they apply early, but we try to get as many to apply early as possible,” she said. “It makes our life easier because we know if we need to go after more recruits. Without us having scholarships, these kids are also being offered half-rides and full-rides.”
All Ivy League athletes can apply early to school as soon as September. On Oct. 1, if the student has completed all the necessary paperwork, universities send out “likely” letters to a limited number of applicants, informing them that they will probably be accepted in December.
With no athletic scholarships to draw on, Ivy coaches said they use likely letters to lock in a player before he or she compares a host of potential scholarship offers. The prospect of a likely letter — often preceded by a verbal likely from the coach — that could speed up the admissions process may encourage athletes to apply early.
But Yale Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel said he does not think likely letters are a factor for the majority of college applicants. Brenzel said he is unsure as to how Harvard and Princeton will proceed with athletic recruiting.
“Only a modest percentage of athletes get ‘likely’ letters — well less than one-third, and it varies some from school to school,” he said in an e-mail.
Perhaps in athletics more than anywhere else, Harvard and Princeton’s argument that early admissions has become a tool of the privileged is apparent. Because athletes have more financial options than most other students, binding early admissions might nudge aside those athletes who would want to compare scholarship opportunities at multiple schools. In this respect, the elimination of the early application — especially at Princeton — may open the recruiting landscape within the Ivy League to a new set of less privileged student-athletes.
But the tradeoff is not that simple. In sports that are often well represented by the lower and lower-middle classes, money is of paramount concern, making early acceptance of even great importance, swimmer Emma Chapman ’09 said. Chapman predicts that at Harvard and Princeton’s rival schools, coaches will recruit harder, encouraging early application more strongly to ensure athletes are committed. Recruiters at Harvard and Princeton may be forced to think twice about recruiting low-income athletes who, if accepted regular decision, may choose the money offered by scholarship schools. Low-income students could even become less coveted because they are more of a recruiting liability for non-scholarship schools, she said.
“The kids who can’t afford school will want to go to a school where they don’t have to pay,” Chapman said. “So coaches at Harvard and Princeton will have to work twice as hard to get those kids to come. Low-income students will be more likely to take a full ride somewhere else because the situation is financial, not just academic.”
For now, Harvard and Princeton may struggle to balance their commitment to abolishing early admissions with the disadvantage of being unable to entice those who could afford to apply early with likely letters. Andy Shay, head coach of the Yale men’s lacrosse team, said every recruited player on his roster applied early. Shay said he would not be surprised if Harvard and Princeton decide to still allow athletes to apply in September to facilitate October likely letters.
“It would be very difficult for them to keep up if they don’t do that,” he said.
Almost all the athletes interviewed for this article said the early admissions process provides a huge competitive boost for coaches. The loss of that weapon may seriously weaken the coaches’ recruiting arsenal and leave both Harvard and Princeton playing catch-up.
“Early application is a win-win because you get recruits away from your opponents and you get them for yourself,” golfer Colby Moore ’09 said. “For one or two schools to lose it, I think that is definitely a disadvantage.”
While some sports rely entirely on early admissions to build a class, others are more willing to leave the door open for recruits. Swimming, like lacrosse, is “almost 99 percent” early acceptances, Chapman said.
“Coaches at other schools won’t give you as much support if you apply regular,” she said. Without the contractual guarantee of attendance, “there’s nothing except the athletes’ integrity to keep them from applying to 20 schools and telling all 20 of them that they’re the top choice.”
A sense of impending change dominates the Ivy League recruiting landscape, but no one seems to know quite what those changes will be. The future of recruiting may hinge on the decisions of other universities. If Harvard and Princeton remain the only two schools without any form of early application, the institutions might have to alter the ways in which their coaches attract athletes in order to maintain competitiveness.
But until those changes appear, which may not be for many months, coaches said they are placing trust in their respective administrations.
“I think we have a great deal of respect for the university making the decisions that they believe is in the best interest not only of the university but the admissions world in general,” Richard Barron, Princeton’s head coach of women’s basketball, said. “It’s a leap of faith that what’s best for the university is also best for [athletics] in the long run. We understand that this is part of a much bigger picture of the university, not just athletics.”