Tensions between recruitment and access in holistic admissions

Last month, the National Public Radio’s education blog covered a report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, a higher education think tank and non-profit, that claimed varsity recruitment and scholarships are potential contributing factors in the underrepresentation of low-income students at competitive colleges. The JKC report aimed to broaden discussion around this type of under-representation, known as “undermatching,” by focusing on admissions offices instead of the choices of low-income students. The report emphasizes that colleges themselves contribute to undermatching in several ways. As the college continues to push towards equity and outreach, the relationship between varsity recruitment and undermatching does not seem to be a major concern of the admissions office. Dean of Admissions Jim Bock explained that athletic recruitment is based on academic qualifications and athletic talent — in that order of importance.

The argument about athletic recruitment and undermatching relies on the availability and accessibility of high school and middle school sports across the country. Certain sports that are consistently offered in college athletic programs are largely confined to areas and schools that are disproportionately higher income, frequently those with high equipment costs or unusual space requirements. Moreover, data shows that higher-income students are more likely to enroll in sports in general. A ten-year study of Massachusetts high schools demonstrated consistent and large differences in participation in sports between high-income areas and low-income areas. According to data by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, the ten wealthiest communities in the state had an average athletics participation rate of 103 percent, meaning that the average student played slightly more than one sport. The ten poorest communities averaged 44 percent.

In recent years, the college has articulated a continued interest in expanding access and enrollment for low-income students. This past summer marked the first iteration of the new Summer Scholars Program, designed to offer extra preparation for incoming freshmen who are planning to pursue science, engineering, or math degrees and are from underprivileged backgrounds. In the fall, the college announced it would be joining a nationwide coalition to focus on increasing access and affordability, and expanded its accessibility-oriented Discover Swarthmore program from one weekend to two.

Bock placed the two admissions parameters for varsity recruits — athletic capability and academic preparedness — in the context of the college’s holistic process. “What is the educational background of the parents?  Will the student be the first generation to attend college, and is English the student’s first, second, or third language?…” Bock explained, modeling the mindset of an admissions officer. “What sport does the student play and can she be a playmaker for a Swarthmore team?  Will she join a cultural or religious affinity group once on campus?  Does he have the talent to contribute to our orchestra or jazz band?  Has she had the resources to excel or has she outperformed her given context?”

Nonetheless, both Bock and Athletics Director Adam Hertz emphasized that the recruitment process operates in a high-school athletic landscape that reflects social inequalities. In particular, the administrators identified the school’s reliance on expensive, high-profile teams and tournaments for efficiently finding talented American athletes.

“The trend in most youth sports is toward tournament play, showcases, travel teams, AAU tournaments, recruiting camps, etc.” explained Hertz. “With that trend comes some obstacles, including potential financial barriers. Many Swarthmore coaches identify and recruit through these events, which can limit their exposure to some populations. However, we try to identify qualified prospects from as many sources as possible.”

On the other hand, the college’s need-blind admissions policy and relatively strong financial aid often make it a good option for low-income athletes who do garner attention from coaches.

“Athletic recruiting is a challenge nationally, and our need-blind admissions policies and need-based financial aid may be an advantage for low-income students with athletic talent as athletic scholarships are hard to come by at the Division I and II levels,” Bock explained. “A student from any income, high or low, is able to compete on our teams, if he or she possesses the talent and desire.”

Nicole Phalen ’18, a member of the varsity field hockey team, agreed that varsity teams are generally less diverse than the student population as a whole, but argued that this deficit reflects problems that go beyond the admissions department.

“I would say, in general, there is probably less diversity on varsity sports teams, but I don’t think that that is necessarily a part of the recruitment and admissions process,” Phalen explained. “I think that starts way before, in terms of who has access to playing these sports growing up. In the town where I lived, what happened was, there were a lot of good athletes who you could see in terms of gym class [sic] … But a lot of those people who came from low-income families weren’t able to stay after school because they couldn’t get a ride home or they needed a job. So I think that a lot of who has the opportunity to play a sport in college actually occurs more at the middle school high school level.”

Phalen also emphasized that the number of annual athletic recruits varies from team to team. She observed that despite general similarities between the rules of field hockey and soccer — both involve fields of eleven players aiming a ball towards a grounded goal, the women’s soccer team consistently seems to have more recruits. Insofar as some sports tend to be more accessible at the high school level than others, relative recruitment resources between teams could affect the extent to which athlete recruits contribute to undermatching.

That is to say, if soccer is a more socioeconomically diverse sport than, say, field hockey, there could be benefits to a recruitment imbalance that favors soccer. Men’s Soccer Coach Eric Wagner claimed that the students on his team consistently reflect the diversity of the college as a whole.

“I cannot speak for the other sports, but the experience of the men’s soccer team is that we have historically fielded teams of student-athletes who very closely mirror the student body as a whole in terms of diversity, socio-economically, geographically, and in any other categories by which one might tabulate such things,” he opined. “The common denominator: they must be good soccer players and they must be able to keep up with the rigors of a Swarthmore education.”

Wagner also pointed out that none of the sports named in the NPR piece as skewed towards higher-income students are offered at the varsity level at the college. These were, in the order listed in the article, crew/rowing, sailing, diving, squash, fencing, gymnastics, rugby, skiing, and water polo.

Setting their relation to admissions accessibility aside, Bock pointed out the value that varsity athletics bring to the college.

“Engagement in a rigorous varsity program or club sport or intramurals promotes teamwork, collaboration, problem solving, and can help a student achieve a healthy balance when facing the rigors of a Swarthmore education,” he explained. “The benefits of team sports have been shown to be substantial.”

This description fit with Phalen’s experience as a varsity athlete.

“Almost every athlete I know says they love their team and playing their sport even though it’s so time-consuming and exhausting. I think athletics is very valuable to those who are a part of its community.”


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