Commentary: Northwestern Student-Athlete Admissions
by Jonathan Hodges

There has been a recent uproar in the Northwestern community that has seemingly always been percolating on the back burner, and that is the admissions process for prospective student-athletes. This time around, it was a touted (three-star) basketball recruit, originally from Croatia but attended a private school in Indiana for his senior year, who was reportedly preparing to formally commit to NU but was denied admission after a seemingly long process. Back in December, it was a highly ranked (four-star) football recruit from nearby Lake Forest Academy who was denied admission to NU. In both cases, many Wildcat fans came out of the woodwork to voice their opinions online with many criticizing the decisions to deny admission to highly regarded athletes. These situations bring to the forefront something that continually disturbs a vocal group of NU fans but also sets the university apart, and that is the admissions process for NU recruits.

Northwestern's policy is that the admissions department makes their decision on whether or not to admit a prospective student-athlete without interference from the athletics department. And while admissions certainly considers participation in a sport (particularly if they are talented and perform at a high level) in the admissions process, they do not completely disregard the academic standards that make Northwestern the top-tier school that it is. This inevitably leads to some recruits being denied admission to the school (note that the overall acceptance rate to NU is 23.1% according to the most recent data from US News & World Report).

What rankles many fans, though, is that Northwestern is rather unique in its sports admission standards. A large portion of recruits stand no chance of admission to NU, and even among those with "borderline" academics (for admission to NU), Northwestern does not make exceptions for admission. Although nobody associated with the school will admit as much, this is even more strict than some of NU's "peer" institutions (think Duke, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, etc.) who have been known to make exceptions from time to time.

My Take

First off, I would like to make my personal opinion very clear: I am in full support of Northwestern's admission policy for prospective student-athletes. Northwestern University is an institution of higher learning above all else, and maintaining high admission standards for all students is a key component of that. Also, I trust both the athletics and admissions departments and am happy that they keep everything above the table when handling the admissions process for recruits. These policies help make NU truly unique both amongst the entire college landscape and amongst its peer institutions.

Also, I support Northwestern Athletics' goal of "winning the right way" which includes keeping the highest of standards in the classroom and in one's character and striving to win on the field while doing so. Again, this helps set NU apart and shows what the university is all about; NU really does practice what it preaches.


Of course, given that the vast majority of schools that NU competes against (in revenue sports: football and men's basketball) do not hold the same standards, this puts NU at a distinct disadvantage in terms of attracting talent, since a good portion (likely, well over the majority) of recruits are automatically excluded. This is beside the other baked-in disadvantages that include being located within a major pro sports market, having a relatively small student population, and being a private school with few fans outside of the direct students/alumni/faculty/staff community. But being at a talent disadvantage is significant, particularly given NCAA limits on practice time and scholarships.

But, even given that, NU football has shown that it can compete over the past 17 seasons (3 conference championships and 9 bowl appearances in that span), while basketball has made some noise (4 consecutive NIT appearances). NU can indeed compete and win even with its academic "handcuffs." The successes become even sweeter when one takes into account how NU got there: with high academic standards and student-athletes with good character.

How We Got Here

Northwestern has had rather high admissions standards for some time, so that begs the question: how did we get to this point where these instances of recruits denied admission to NU create such a stir? The answer mostly lies with the infamous recruiting websites who bring as much information from recruits as they can and as quickly as possible, along with the fact that information is prohibited to come from the university itself by NCAA rule. Also, today's need-to-know-NOW media environment also plays a role.

The rise of recruiting websites over the past 15 years or so has certainly turned attention towards this process that was typically closed off to everyone except for the recruit and their close family and friends. Now, that is collected and broadcast to the entire world - that information being a high school student's list of prospective colleges, which colleges have interests in him, and, ultimately, where he decides to enroll. And now with internet video we can watch live as a recruit selects his school by putting on some kind of show usually involving hats. Coach Fitz takes shots at recruiting sites at almost every opportunity, and he has some good reasons. And recruiting sites have certainly brought the admissions process to more light, particularly given NU's level of recent success on the gridiron and Fitz's upgrade in the level of recruit brought in. (Note that I do not blame those working at the recruiting sites themselves, as they are essentially just the messengers who are filling a demand from the public, and generally they do a solid job of reporting the information they can legally obtain - it's really only the anonymous message board posters who stir up trouble).

That brings us to the source of this recruiting information, which is typically one-sided from the recruit's perspective, as the school itself is barred from even mentioning a recruit until a letter of intent is signed (which itself is not allowed until a specified date that depends on the sport). This thereby makes it difficult, if not impossible, for recruiting site writers to confirm information, while a good amount of information is essentially relayed second-hand (through high school coaches and friends/family of recruits). This is particularly important to remember when trying to evaluate why, say, a recruit was denied admission or which schools "offered" a scholarship to a recruit. Meanwhile, we never hear anything from the university's perspective (e.g. what the recruit was told or promised, who spoke to them and when).

Finally, today's instant communication atmosphere emphasizes this even more, with fans wanting to know who will be attending as soon as possible. Less than 20 years ago, relatively little was known about prospective student-athletes as there was just no way to relay information about them (outside of a few print publications that highlighted only a select few recruits). And back then, one had to wait until well after signing day when information could be printed and disseminated, or even until football season in the fall to find out about those guys who enrolled. Now, many expect to know the second that a recruit makes the decision in his head, even with months to go until signing day and even longer until they set foot on the field of play.


First off, Northwestern is not about to change its admission standards and, if anything, is more confident about them now than ever. NU's academic standing continues to rise while its athletics are as competitive as ever. NU's overall administration is strongly behind athletics (listen to anything current President Morty Schapiro has to say, while NU's previous President Henry Bienen continues to frequent NU sporting events), while the NU athletic department has intelligent people running the ship who also are completely bought-into this philosophy (AD Jim Phillips number one, and also Coach Fitz along with the other coaches and staff).

If one has qualms about these standards and what it means for NU's competitiveness on the field, I would encourage one to speak with someone from the NU athletic department directly, as they are typically happy to do. I had a nice long talk with NU Sr. Assoc. AD for Development Shon Morris when Fitz visited DC last month that included a good bit on this topic, and I was further enlightened on this and grew stronger in my support for NU's standards. While one may disagree, it would be worth hearing out why NU does what it does and how the process works from the institution itself.

Finally, beyond NU holding these standards to uphold its own position, the fact is that student-athletes are indeed enrolled in college which is about being an institution of higher learning, not a minor league athletic club. College sports help bind the university community and certainly entertain us, but it is important to keep priorities in mind, and one would hope that academics are number one on that list. Thankfully, NU is demonstrating a model position by holding these standards while also competing at the highest level, and I wouldn't want to see it any other way.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.