I was watching the first round of NCAA Basketball and Harvard played a great game against New Mexico. One of the announcers said something to the effect of, ‘since Harvard has relaxed their academic standards for athletes, they’ve really turned things around.’
Well, as it turns out, Harvard hasn’t relaxed academic standards for athletes. If anything they are higher than ever. That’s right. As Harvard admissions have become more selective, test scores of the average student have risen and as a consequence the academic standard for Harvard athletes has also risen. Here’s how it works:
Throughout the Ivy League, there is a common agreement that specifies the academics required for incoming athletic recruits. The purpose of this is to make sure the athletes on campus are academically similar to the rest of the student body. The tool for evaluating academics is called the Academic Index. The Academic Index is calculated using a formula that takes into account SAT scores, ACT score and High School GPA. This number is calculated for the entire student body at each Ivy League school and the scores of the recruited athletes, taken as a group, must be within 1 standard deviation of that score. Standard deviation, in case your stats knowledge is rusty, is a measure of the variation in a set of data values, in this case Academic Index scores.
So if the typical Harvard (non-athlete) student index of 225 (estimated), the typical Harvard athlete would have an AI around 210 (estimated). What does a 210 AI look like in terms of test scores and GPA? That’s about 680 per section on the SAT(2040 total) or a 30 composite ACT, along with a 3.7 unweighted GPA.
As admissions become more and more selective at Harvard, the academic standards for athletes rise accordingly.
Since we’re talking about the entire group of athletes falling within that range, that means that some lower index athletes can be recruited, as long as they are balanced by a higher recruit. If Harvard chose to recruit from a bigger pool of basketball players, for example, they could go after some players with lower Index scores, but they have to balance it out with higher index athletes.
Wesley Saunders, for example, the workhorse of the Harvard squad, was over 1800 on the SAT according to an ESPN article. That puts him around 200 for the Academic Index, depending on his GPA. That’s going to put him in the top 15-20% of all college-bound students in the US.
How does that compare with the minimum requirements established by the NCAA? Most Division I athletic programs only require an athlete to meet the NCAA standards to be an eligible recruit. According to the table published by the NCAA, there is a sliding scale of GPA and SAT scores. To be eligible with a 3.0 GPA, a recruit has to have a combined 620 on the math and verbal sections of the SAT. That’s somewhere around the 5th percentile. In other words, 95% of college-bound kids will score higher than that.
So you can see, at Harvard coach can only recruit from a very, very small subset of the players that are available to the rest of the Division I schools.
So while the concept of a true student-athlete is dying throughout much of Division I college athletics, it’s very much alive and well in the Ivy League.