UCLA should not lower admission standards for athletes

Large SAT score gap between athletes and non-athletes shows need to equalize processes

UCLA can add another record-breaker to its list of sports statistics: largest SAT score gap between athletes and non-athletes. According to a new survey of 54 public universities released by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the average athlete at UCLA scored 247 points lower on the SATs than the average non-athlete, a greater difference than at any other university surveyed.

On a 1600-point scale, 247 points is clearly significant. What is less clear is how important the difference in SAT scores is to education on campus and the admissions process.

For most college applicants, high school grade point average and standardized testing ““ either with the SAT or the ACT ““ are the major factors that determine whether they are accepted by a school. Extracurricular activities can make a difference but rarely make up for two hundred-plus points on the SAT.

Unless that extracurricular is a sport, apparently. More than 61 percent of athletes at UCLA were accepted by “special admit,” while for the overall student body, less than three percent are accepted that way.

The score gap grows for football and men’s basketball ““ 340 and 345 fewer points, respectively, at UCLA. This seems to suggest that the more popular a sport is, the more lenient admissions is to get better players. Some administrators admit that this is true but a necessary part of collegiate sports.

“Every institution I know in the country operates in the same way. It may or may not be a good thing, but that’s the way it is,” said Tom Lifka, chairman of the committee for athlete admissions at UCLA, in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

This isn’t to say that athletes at UCLA are less intelligent than non-athletes. For years, the education community has debated the validity and usefulness of the SAT and other standardized testing. As Lifka noted, “Student athletes are succeeding academically and athletically,” and SAT scores are just one of many factors admissions uses to choose among applicants.

However, this shouldn’t be a question of whether the SAT is a good standard, but whether standards are fairly applied. As budgets are cut and each entering class finds themselves working harder for a smaller number of spots, every special admit means a traditionally qualified student is turned away.

If UCLA believes standardized tests are helpful in determining college success for non-athletes, then they should apply that same idea to athletes. While a move toward less number-focused admission processes could be a good thing, these exceptions are just that ““ exceptions, not a shift toward a different system.

Even if SAT scores are seen as less important for UCLA admission, SAT scores play a large role in college ranking systems. These rankings can affect a school’s reputation, which is an important, if intangible, element to a good education.

It’s possible that any slip in ranking is made up with the reputation that comes with having a great sports team; however, studies have indicated that successful sports programs don’t lead to increases in applicants or donations.

However, the same studies have shown that while in the long term, applications and donations don’t go up, they do spike around particularly successful years. Maybe this is just because the sports put a school’s name into the limelight, but it also says something interesting about our society that a university would need to rely on sports for publicity, rather than academics, especially considering the purpose higher education is supposed to serve.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey uses numbers from the classes of 1998 to 2000, before UCLA adopted its holistic application review process. Hopefully, using a holistic approach means more of the most academically qualified students ““ student-athletes included ““ are being accepted.

UCLA should not allow a competitive sports mentality to be more important than creating the strongest academic environment possible, and the admissions process should reflect that by treating athletes and non-athletes equally.

E-mail Ohlemacher at dohlemacher@media.ucla.edu. Send general comments to viewpoint@media.ucla.edu.

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