In middle school, Amanda Grady played golf because her parents thought it would get her into a good college. She didn’t stick with it. Then she discovered rowing, which was offered at her public high school in a well-off Orlando suburb.
Though relatively small for an open weight rower at 5-foot-9 and 130 pounds, Grady qualified for the U.S. junior development rowing program, which gave her direct access to college coaches. Such programs can now charge more than $5,000 for summer training camp.
That exposure, along with her high school team’s reputation as one of the best in the country, gave her a leg up when it came time to apply for college. She took official recruiting visits to four Ivy League schools, and the coaches at Yale, her top choice, helped walk her through the early admissions process.
An international baccalaureate student and merit scholar, Grady was a good candidate for Yale on academics alone. But she isn’t certain she would have gotten in without crew.
“I really think it comes down to the roll of the dice at that point,” she said. Grady, who now works in Silicon Valley at a mobile technology startup, graduated from Yale in 2012.
This month’s Varsity Blues scandal demonstrates the tremendous power that college coaches can wield. Prosecutors allege that a few dozen wealthy parents bribed coaches at schools including Yale, Georgetown and the University of Southern California to set aside spots for their children even though some didn’t even play the sports they claimed on their applications. But the affluent also use legal ways to take advantage of a system that favors athletes in college admissions.
Every year, tens of thousands of high school seniors from all walks of life compete for a limited number of spots on college basketball, football, baseball and softball teams. Ivy League universities and other elite schools also reserve a sizable slice of each class for kids with more exclusive pursuits, such as skiing, sailing and crew. While schools are trying to diversify the rosters, the sports remain overwhelmingly white, sporadically offered at public high schools and can require expensive equipment. The result is an admissions boost for the most privileged applicants.
Crew especially exemplifies how elite colleges tilt admissions toward the affluent. In the cutthroat game of college acceptance, an interest in rowing can offer a significant edge. It’s an open secret among some parents.
“Rowing became a sport that was chatted about within certain athletic circles –- exclusively within these white upper-middle-class communities,” said University of Oklahoma education professor Kirsten Hextrum, who studies college sports recruiting.
A popular sport at East Coast prep schools, crew is harder to find at public U.S. high schools, with most concentrated in wealthy suburbs on the coasts, like Greenwich, Connecticut and Bethesda, Maryland.
USRowing, the sport’s governing body, counts as members about 650 teams and clubs focused on high school athletes. About half are high school varsity teams. By comparison, more than 18,000 U.S. high schools sponsor basketball teams, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
To fill empty spots, college rowing coaches recruit heavily from abroad, especially from the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, and often from elite prep schools such as Eton College and St. Paul’s.
Crew, and other exclusive sports, are one reason that elite college student bodies remain so lopsidedly wealthy. At Ivy League colleges and some other elite universities, more students come from families in the top 1 percent of income than from the bottom 50 percent combined, according to research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and others.
While sports like basketball can add to economic diversity, Ivies offer an unusual number of minor sports that do the opposite, including fencing, squash, sailing, water polo and both lightweight and heavyweight crew.
Rowers must be tall and strong and the sport requires an exceptional amount of discipline and grit. Grady’s high school team practiced three hours a day, taking only Christmas, New Year’s and some Sundays off. And unlike other minor sports such as fencing and squash, crew coaches have many spots to fill. The average Division I men’s squad last year had 46 rowers while women’s had 63.
Because of Title IX gender equity rules, colleges are far more likely to have a women’s crew team than a men’s squad. Athletic departments use women’s crew teams to balance out male sports like football and wrestling. Unlike men’s rowing, women’s crew is an official NCAA sport with a sanctioned championship. Women’s Division I rowing teams are allowed to hand out the equivalent of 20 full scholarships, more than any other women’s sport.
For Grady, who only visited Ivies, scholarships weren’t in play. Ivy League schools don’t give out athletic scholarships, but their coaches can still offer something of value — help in navigating a fiercely competitive admissions process. Yale, for example, only accepts 6 percent of applicants.
So-called likely letters are one way for schools to give athletic recruits a wink that suggests acceptance is imminent. Grady was told by a Yale assistant coach that the rowing team had eight likely letters to hand out that year, though she didn’t get one.
Still, the presumption of an applicant joining a sports team can be a decisive factor even if coaches don’t officially designate an athlete as a recruit. A lawsuit playing out in the same Boston courthouse as the Varsity Blues proceedings helps demonstrate that.
Filings in the case, which alleges discrimination against Asian-American applicants to Harvard, show how applicants are rated on their academic, extracurricular, athletic and personal qualities on a four-point scale. Experts hired by Harvard and the plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions, analyzed years of data. While admissions officers officially get final say on all applicants, court filings show recruited athletes who score highly on academics have an 83 percent chance of getting in compared with 16 percent for non-athletes — a 67-point boost. Legacy applicants and low-income applicants had a 40-point and 9-point boost, respectively.
Crew isn’t the only sport that provides an exclusive route into top universities. Several sports that are in demand at elite colleges, such as fencing, aren’t widely offered in high school. Even common sports like track and field have events that aren’t usually contested at the secondary level but college coaches love to recruit for.
“Pole vaulting is a very exclusive event because not all high schools have a coach with the knowledge,” Hextrum said. “That can become its own exclusive bubble within the track world, as something harder to gain access to [in high school] but easier to get access to college.”
Many recruited athletes do come from modest backgrounds, but it’s less common in expensive sports like crew. Almost three-quarters of women rowers are white, NCAA data show, while just 2 percent are black. (The sports body doesn’t publish data on male rowers.)
In the world of crew, Ricardo Pantaleon is an outlier. Nine years old when his family moved to New York from the Dominican Republic, he grew up dreaming of being recruited to play baseball in college. Those plans changed when his sister came home from school one day with a flyer for a crew program for low-income families in New York.
“I had no idea what rowing was,” said Pantaleon, 19. “I knew it was a water sport, but that was pretty much it.”
His mom encouraged him to go to tryouts for the nonprofit program, called Row New York, and he made the team. A few months later Pantaleon, an eighth-grader at the time, decided to quit baseball and row crew full-time because he thought he had a better shot of using it to go to college.
Pantaleon is now a sophomore at Columbia University on the men’s lightweight team. The coaches gave him “soft support” in the admissions process and Pantaleon said he isn’t clear what that meant for his application. “You never know with college admissions,” he said.
Most of the teams Pantaleon met in the college recruiting process were exclusively white, which is one of the reasons why Columbia was more appealing.
“We have a few Hispanic kids and two kids from India,” he said. “I would say this is probably one of the most diverse teams for lightweight rowing, which is awesome.”