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The Admissions Gap for Big-Time Athletes

December 29, 2008

Consider two would-be college basketball players. One scored 850 on his SATs and had a high school grade point average of 2.75; the other scored 975 and had a GPA of 3.2. But the former enrolls at a university where his SAT is within 150 points of the average for all students at the institution. The latter’s test score, though higher, puts him more than 300 points below those for the average freshman who will be sitting alongside him in class.

Which one is at more of a disadvantage academically in college? Are colleges doing a disservice to athletes if they have markedly different admissions standards for them than for other students? Or, as many sports officials argue, should colleges be held accountable more for the ultimate academic performance of their athletes on the way out (e.g., do they graduate?) than for their credentials on the way in?

Questions like those have arisen periodically about big-time college athletics, and they are likely to to be raised anew by an investigative report published Sunday by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The package of articles is based on a year-long review of information submitted as part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's accreditation-like "certification" process by more than 50 public universities that play big-time football or basketball. As part of that process, colleges provide a wide range of information and data, including, typically, on the admission of athletes.

The data collected by the Atlanta paper are difficult to compare from college to college, because they cover different years; institutions participate in the NCAA certification process only once a decade, and so admissions information for the 54 colleges range from the late 1990s through 2006.

Still, they offer an unusual glimpse at data that rarely see the light of day, and, taken together with recent investigative reports by USA Today (examining the clustering of athletes in certain academic majors), the Indianapolis Star (exploring the rates at which Division I colleges use “special” processes to admit athletes and other students), and the Associated Press (showing the significant sums that colleges are pouring into academic support for athletes), the Atlanta paper’s report draws attention to the tension inherent in a system in which major colleges increasingly provide sports as high-profile entertainment with athletes whom they argue are in many ways like regular students at their institutions.

The problem is that there are many ways in which athletes, especially in sports such as football and basketball, differ radically from average students. They spend dozens and dozens of hours a week on their sports, travel away from campus for days at a time and, in some cases, integrate little with other students on campus. Some of these same things can be said of students in other time-intensive activities, such as musicians or student newspaper editors.

But that's where the question of academic preparation comes in: If athletes are entering college with significant lesser academic preparation than their peers (as measured, it should be said, by measures such as standardized test scores and high school grades that are admittedly imperfect, though widely used), does that put them at a major disadvantage, given the intense demands on them?

Athletes Lag

The Atlanta newspaper's project puts those questions front and center for many colleges. It focused its research on colleges in the six major Bowl Championship Series conferences -- those that play at the highest level of NCAA football -- plus a few other institutions that were highly ranked in football or basketball polls in 2007-8. It sought access to the institutions' NCAA certification reports, a process that the NCAA treats as confidential except for its ultimate result.

The newspaper did not bother to collect information from the private universities that compete in those conferences -- prestigious and high-profile institutions such as Duke, Stanford and Northwestern Universities and the University of Notre Dame -- because they are not subject to the state open-records laws on which the Journal-Constitution based its requests for information. (The newspaper did include data on one private institution, Syracuse University, that was contained in its certification report, which it made public on the athletics department's Web site.) Most of those independent institutions tend to have academically selective student bodies but to recruit from the same population of athletes as other institutions, giving them wide gaps in qualifications between their athletes and other students.

Despite those laws, even some of the public universities did not provide the relevant information, the Journal-Constitution noted. "Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh refused to provide the information. The University of Kansas and West Virginia University said their most recent NCAA certification self-study did not include the information. Kansas State University deleted all of its sport-by-sport data," the newspaper explained.

For those colleges that did report their information, the gaps in academic preparation between athletes and other students are wide. The average SAT for all freshmen at the colleges in question was 1161, while the average for all athletes was 1037, 124 points lower. The average SAT for football players was 941, and for male basketball players, 934.

The averages mask much wider variation among colleges. The University of Cincinnati, Clemson University, the University of California at Berkeley and Georgia Institute of Technology all had average SAT scores for their men's basketball players of roughly 950. But at Cincinnati, the basketball players were within 124 points of the student body at the urban public university; at Clemson, the gap was 201 points; at California, a highly selective flagship, 350 points; and at Georgia Tech, one of the nation's leading public institutions for science and particularly engineering, 396 points.

Similar gaps show up within conferences. To judge by the SAT scores of its freshmen, the University of Florida is the most selective institution in the Southeastern Conference, yet its football players had the lowest average SAT score, 346 points lower than the average for all students. Mississippi State's football recruits had a roughly similar academic profile, within about 20 SAT points, yet its football players were much more in line with the qualifications of the general student body there.

Whether the data suggest a problem at any particular college -- or for the powers-that-be in the NCAA -- is open for debate. Officials at selective institutions with big gaps say such divergences are the price of competing with institutions with more open admissions policies, and tend to point to high graduation rates as evidence that they are helping to ensure that the athletes they admit succeed, regardless of their incoming credentials.

“If you’re going to mount a competitive program in Division I-A, and our institution is committed to do that, some flexibility in admissions of athletes is going to take place,” Tom Lifka, chairman of the committee that handles athlete admissions at the University of California at Los Angeles, told the Journal-Constitution. “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.”

But critics tend to argue that the colleges are doing a disservice to athletes who come in underprepared, and suggest that colleges may be achieving those higher graduation rates, in part, by directing athletes into less demanding academic programs (hence the concerns, raised by USA Today, about clustering), or by giving them loads of academic help, as revealed by the Associated Press article.

That debate won't be settled here, or any time soon. But since these are statistics that aren't usually available for public consumption, at the very least they should prompt discussion on many campuses.

A table containing key data for the various universities in the Atlanta newspaper's report is below.

SAT Scores for Incoming Athletes and Other Students at 54 Universities

  All Students' Average SAT All Athletes' Average SAT Men's Basketball Players' Average SAT SAT Gap, Students and Basketball Players Football Players' Average SAT SAT Gap, Students and Football Players Entering Classes Examined
Alabama 1112 993 873 239 926 186 2004-6
Arizona 1120 1017 1016 104 924 196 2003-5
Arizona State 1086 1003 906 180 937 149 1996-8
Arkansas 1157 1022 910 247 Did Not Provide N/A 2001-3
Auburn 1116 1017 910 206 922 194 2002-4
California 1298 1095 948 350 967 331 2003-5
Cincinnati 1064 1039 940 124 935 129 2002-4
Clemson 1158 1022 957 201 950 208 1998-2000
Colorado 1127 975 943 184 966 161 2000-2
Connecticut 1187 1023 903 284 956 231  
Florida 1236 1021 968 268 890 346 2002-4
Florida State 1155 1012 870 285 917 238 2002-4
Georgia 1188 1002 966 222 949 239 1997-99
Georgia Tech 1344 1109 948 396 1028 316 2003-5
Hawaii 1095 984 900 195 968 127 1998-2000
Illinois 1241 1053 940 301 952 289 2004-6
Indiana 1103 1042 990 113 973 130 2001-3
Iowa 1124 1036 870 254 994 130 2001-3
Iowa State 1133 1058 1087 46 922 211 1998-2000
Kansas State 1085 1024 Did Not Provide N/A Did Not Provide N/A 1998-2000
Kentucky 1127 1034 964 163 962 165 2001-3
Louisville 1037 973 878 159 878 159 1999-2001
Louisiana State 1105 1000 Did Not Provide N/A 926 179 2002-4
Maryland 1216 1054 Did Not Provide N/A 961 255 1997-99
Memphis 1028 971 840 188 890 138 2000-2
Michigan 1264 1148 997 267 1077 187 1999-2001
Michigan State 1116 1017 932 184 917 199 2001-3
Minnesota 1150 1062 913 237 936 214 2004-6
Mississippi 1086 1002 888 198 932 154 2005-7
Mississippi State 1088 1004 832 256 911 177 2002-4
Missouri 1164 1062 951 213 942 222 2001-3
Nebraska 1129 1010 920 209 962 167 2000-2
North Carolina 1268 1080 899 369 951 317 2001-3
North Carolina State 1182 1031 916 266 926 256 2000-2
Ohio State 1163 1050 966 197 955 208 1999-2001
Oklahoma 1158 999 869 289 920 238 2001-3
Oklahoma State 1103 971 1023 80 878 225 1997-99
Oregon 1100 1018 Did Not Provide N/A 953 147 2002-4
Oregon State 1085 1012 1009 76 997 88 1997-99
Purdue 1157 1062 945 212 974 183 2004-6
Rutgers 1184 1061 859 325 938 246 2001-3
South Carolina 1101 996 910 191 932 169 1998-2000
South Florida 1099 993 Did Not Provide N/A 932 167 2003-5
Syracuse 1185 1045 858 327 922 263 2003-5
Tennessee 1089 1009 920 169 927 162 2000-2
Texas 1230 1037 797 433 948 282 2003-5
Texas A&M 1157 1001 892 265 911 246 2003-5
Texas Tech 1120 968 905 215 901 219 2004-6
UCLA 1275 1028 930 345 935 340 1998-2000
Virginia 1323 1129 Did Not Provide N/A 993 330 2002-4
Virginia Tech 1200 1072 983 217 951 249 2003-5
Washington 1172 1046 951 221 949 223 2001-3
Washington State 1040 994 1013 27 916 124 1998-2000
Wisconsin 1207 1065 1013 194 961 246 1996-98

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

 

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