When the application hits the table, are academics the only factor that sets prospective Vassar students apart?
16 percent of Vassar students are varsity student athletes. Was it their status as athletic recruits that led to their acceptance, or are these students just as, if not more, qualified as the rest of the student body?
These unspoken questions are a taboo that divides students, athletes, coaches and professors alike on campus.
“Vassar is a tough school to get into, and every student here has to hit a high bar to be admitted. You don’t get to be here unless you deserve it,” said the men’s and women’s Cross Country and Track and Field Head Coach James McCowan. “As coaches trying to recruit excellent student-athletes, it is our job to understand what admissions is looking for as well as what it takes to compete athletically.”
According to Coach McCowan, the recruiting and admission process starts with his staff creating a database of hundreds of prospects with the ability to compete at Vassar. Then, McCowan takes a look at a prospects’ transcripts and test scores.
“It doesn’t matter how fast you are, we need to see the academic standing,” Coach McCowan explained. “While we can screen many of these ourselves after working closely with admissions for many years, we still send quite a few of these over to admissions for a quick read on their suitability as potential applicants.”
“An early unofficial read of an application comes with being a recruit,” said freshman lacrosse player Grace Goodwin-Boyd. “My coach submitted my test scores and grades to admissions to get an early, non-official read of whether I would be admitted or not,” Goodwin-Boyd stated. “Then, I came for a clinic and showed that Vassar was my first choice school and my coach submitted my information again for a more official read.”
These pre-reads are critically important for high school athletes who want to continue their careers at an academically selective college. Freshman baseball player Maxwell Spencer noted, “When athletes are going through the recruiting process and have multiple options, it is very important to know whether or not they will be accepted before making their final decision. Pre-reads give prospective athletes security when making a very important decision.”
Although there are early reads, Coach McCowan says that he and other varsity coaches at Vassar College cannot help students with admission or “greenlight” applications, a procedure characterized by guaranteeing acceptance to outstanding athletes even if they are not admissible.
“It can be hard to get top prospects committed to Vassar. The academic window is small, and there aren’t a lot of truly exceptional scholar-athletes at the highest level,” Coach McCowan continued. “When it comes to actually applying, we have a limited number of recommendations we can submit along with students applications. These recommendations won’t change anyone’s prior academic performance.”
This process can be disheartening for Vassar’s coaches. McCowan added, “It is definitely frustrating to see a great student who I know could succeed here, academically and athletically, be turned away. Even more frustrating when they end up admitted to a supposedly more rigorous school when they could not get in here.”
Vassar’s Director of Athletics Michelle Walsh also said that there are no admission exceptions made for student-athletes.
“Vassar is one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country and, as such, has rigorous admissions standards,” Walsh iterated. “Our coaches work closely with our colleagues in admissions to recruit prospective student-athletes that meet those high standards and demonstrate the ability to be academically successful.”
Sophomore basketball player Paul Grinde, on the other hand, does not believe he would have been admitted to Vassar if he was not a recruit.
“There is probably a little bit of a discrepancy with non-athletes and athletes,” Grinde said. “There are probably students out there who are more deserving of an acceptance to Vassar than I am, but I used my athletics to put myself in the best possible school I could.”
While most believe there are no special admits at such a prestigious liberal arts college as Vassar, this is not the case at all colleges and universities. Many other high level academic institutions, spanning across all three athletic divisions, have been known to grant admission to student-athletes of lower academic standing.
Visiting Professor of Music at Vassar Justin Patch tutored student-athletes at the University of Texas, a large, well-funded Division I program that allows such exceptions for athletes.
“My concern for admission standards for athletes had always been that if you want to look at what someone does athletically as a proxy for what they can do with extracurriculars, that’s fine,” Patch explained. “But if you’re bringing someone in who is not as strong academically as you want to be, it’s kind of a recipe for disaster.”
In order for student-athletes to participate in NCAA sports, they must be able to maintain a certain level of academic performance. At a school like Vassar, where the academic requirements are so rigorous, coaches cannot afford to recruit players that will not excel in the classroom.
Freshman basketball player Hunter Gettings believes that the athletes on campus are more than capable of meeting and exceeding Vassar’s academic standards. “I think athletes do just as well if not better than people who do not participate in sports,” Gettings said. “Having limited time on our hands it really helps us to stick to a schedule and get work done in a timely fashion.”
At a school like Vassar, where athletes do not receive special tutoring or help, athletes must be completely responsible for both academic and athletic performance. In fact, most coaches enforce that their players always put academics before athletes. Therefore, athletes will miss practices and even games in the event of exams, labs or the request of professors.
Senior baseball player Adam Erkis told, “I do not think that athletes tend to struggle more in classes at Vassar. If anything, they can be more on top of their work, knowing that they have to account for time at practice or in the weight room.”
Professor Patch agrees that Vassar athletes are more than capable students. “Our student-athletes are such great students, it’s not an issue here,” Professor Patch said. “I had a class last spring where 10 out of 30 of my students were athletes, and they were great students. They were good participators, they were fun, they were great in class, it was never an issue.”
However, misperceptions of athlete’s academic abilities are still very prevalent on campus, according to Professor of Political Science Richard Born. In a study for one of Professor Born’s classes, students sent an email survey to all students at Vassar College, with a few of the questions about perception of athletes. Out of 489 responses to the entirety of the survey, 42.5 percent of students were generally negative about student-athletes, 21.3 percent were neutral, 31 percent were generally positive and approximately 5.2 percent did not respond.
Grinde said that negative perception of athletes on campus is noticeable. “Yes, I feel judged by the non-athletes as being a dumb jock,” Grinde shared. “Athletes are treated as lesser people on this campus because most students believe we don’t deserve to be in this school. We deserve to be here as much as the non-athletes because we are able to keep our grades up. I work hard to be successful in the classroom and that is why I am here at Vassar.”
So if athletes do not have advantages in the admissions process, why do such negative perceptions and misconceptions exist on campus? Although Vassar has homed athletes since its founding in 1861, a divide between athletes and non-athletes still exists today.