Monday, March 14, 2005

Recruiting, Admissions, and the new SAT | by Pat

This past Saturday, the SAT debuted with a long-anticipated change as a new writing section was added to the test and the maximum point total rose from the familiar 1600 to 2400. In addition to the new essay section, the math section was altered to include more difficult math topics usually covered in 3rd year high school math classes.

Will this change affect football recruiting this season? The easy answer: probably not. SAT scores are just one component of a recruit's academic transcript, and the usual sticking point between football recruits and Notre Dame is the number of high school "core" courses.

However, this recruiting season for Notre Dame is not going to be like previous recruiting seasons and the SAT change could have a large impact. How so? Well, that depends on how ND admissions react to the change both at the head coaching position and University presidency.

During the coaching search and brief flirtation with Urban Meyer, the term “academic concessions” was tossed around in a few articles. Given all the rumors flying around at the time it is unclear whether Meyer was asking for the concessions as part of his contract or if Notre Dame was offering them up as an enticement. To be honest I still don't know. (I don't have enough message board award points to reach "insider" status yet. I'm still suck on "semi-knowledgeable alumnus".)

Some members of the media and other schools claimed that concessions were granted by the University in a win-at-all cost mentality. Others, Irish fans mostly, claim that Meyer demanded the concessions, and Notre Dame stuck to its guns and refused. Still others insist that Willingham was already granted similar concessions, but for whatever reasons did not feel the need to use them. Regardless of what really happened, it seems an adjustment of academic standards was definitely a topic of conversation when the Irish hit parade arrived in Salt Lake City, and it's not hard to imagine that Father Jenkins might have a different take on the recruiting policies that Monk instituted. Pure speculation on my part, of course, but there's a lot of smoke.

This is where the SAT changes come in. The old historical averages and percentages are gone. Sure, the College Board has done some studies, and of course they insist there's a strong correlation between old test scores and the new ones. But there is definitely going to be some uncertainty on what constitutes a baseline score, at least until we get a few years worth of hard testing results under our belts. For now, a coach at a school that gives a passing interest in academics isn't going to know if a 1350 is more Mensa, or Katzenmoyer.

So, there's an opportunity here to maybe look at modifying the way Notre Dame qualifies student-athletes. Now just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that "modify" means "obliterate". I'm not taking a Paul Hornung stand here. I'm just wondering if we might see some changes from the ways things have been done in seasons past.

For example, here's one concrete step that could be taken in light of the new scoring system: softening the current practice of refusing official visits to recruits who are not fully qualified academically. The original idea behind the rule is sound; the University should not waste time and money wining and dining recruits with no shot of making through Freshman Year of Studies. But changing this rule can be done in a way to benefit the recruit, the football program, and the academic integrity of Notre Dame.

Perhaps an example might help explain. This past recruiting season a major recruiting prospect, linebacker Ray Maualuga, had early interest in the Fighting Irish. However, he had a low SAT score and Notre Dame couldn't initially offer him a scholarship. (The online recruiting sites have him listed as scoring 800) According to an old IrishEyes article, this caused some complications when it came time to schedule an official visit to Notre Dame,

”I was supposed to go up there this weekend,” said Maualuga. “They called me and said my SAT scores didn’t meet their standards. They said they can’t bring me out due to the scores. I’m just studying for the test and I’ll take it again.”
Now, this case is not unique in Notre Dame recruiting and I'm sure happens with plenty of players every year. So here is how changing the official visit limitations can benefit all involved. Say a highly-recruited prospect takes the new SAT this March or May and ends up with a score that appears to correlate to something in the 800-900 range on the current SAT. Under last year's system, he wouldn't be allowed to make an official visit. But this year, only a percentage of the nation's high school seniors-to-be would have taken the revamped SAT. Obviously, the students who took it as early as possible are academically strong students who didn't need extra prep time and were perhaps planning on applying for early admission. Furthermore, the new essay section will be a challenging obstacle for recruits from high schools that consider one semester cram sessions to be adequate SAT prep. Then for good measure throw in the fact that less academically inclined recruits are sometimes steered towards the ACT, which is shorter, essay-optional, and unlike the SAT doesn't penalize for incorrect answers. Can you trust the percentages and breakdown of scores from those first few tests and make a firm decision on the recruit's ability to succeed at Notre Dame?

This year we should allow recruits with borderline acceptable SAT scores to make official visits. Notre Dame can continue to legitimately recruit the player, and the player will get a chance to come and see campus without having to pay for it himself. (On official visits, the school pays transportation/lodging costs. On unofficial visits, the recruit/family pays.) Since ND recruits nationally, this is a big issue for us -- many families lack the money to fly all over the country on unofficial visits. And history shows that top recruits who do not visit Notre Dame rarely end up signing with Notre Dame.

The benefit for the admissions departments is that they can schedule an interview with the recruit to get a much better grasp on the recruit's ability to handle legitimate college coursework. Things like attitude, work ethic, and other "extenuating circumstances" (difficult family situations, for example) are always easier to glean from an interview as opposed to a faxed transcript and a revamped SAT score.

This isn't a call for a system-wide overhaul. I have no problem with limiting this official visit exemption to only 2-4 recruits a year. But this mofication can maintain our current academic standards, keep the focus on academically-solid recruits, while at the same time still allow the coach some leeway with top recruits he feels might have a shot at becoming eligible down the road.

ND Admissions Standards are always good fodder for a barroom debate among Irish fans, typically breaking down into into the "we have to loosen the restrictions to compete" vs. "we shouldn't sacrifice our academic integrity" camps. With the SAT revamp, there might be an oppotunity here for ND to revisit some of its long-held practices, and as recruiting heats up this summer, it will be interesting to note what, if any, changes are made.

(P.S. As an aside, for those who read Ray Maualuga's 800 SAT score and wondered why we are even debating admitting such a low score, keep in mind that last year Seattle area running back Jonathan Stewart scored a reported 860 and was offered a scholarship, that is to say, admitted to the University. [Perhaps Willingham did have and use some of those reported concessions.] As for Maualuga, Irish fans will get a chance to watch him play as he ended up signing with the USC Trojans.)