Speaking to the University of Michigan faculty senate last week, Mark Schlissel, the university’s president, was candid in his assessment of the admissions process for athletes. "We admit students who aren't as qualified," he said. “And it's probably the kids that we admit that can't honestly, even with lots of help, do the amount of work and the quality of work it takes to make progression from year to year.”
His comments -- made as the University of North Carolina is still reeling from a high-profile academic scandal where athlete preparedness was a central issue -- were perhaps too candid for some.
Schlissel became president of Michigan in July after serving as provost for three years at Brown University, an institution with a very different take on athletics. In his short time at Michigan, Schlissel has been pressured by angry students, alumni, fans, and the board of regents to replace the university's since-resigned athletic director. Schlissel said he wants to take his time and find a new athletic director who has "academic integrity," while many fans want him to hire an athletic director who will quickly fire the current football coach, Brady Hoke. “I’ve really learned that this whole athletic sphere and the usual way you approach things just doesn’t work," he said. "It’s just a crazed or irrational approach that the world and the media takes to athletics decisions."
The president later publicly apologized for his remarks and the stir they caused, though not before Hoke swiftly offered a rebuttal, explaining that Michigan is a university that boasts both a proud athletic tradition and strong academics. “Being truly an academic institution that it is, that degree will last forever,” he said. “So we take it very seriously.”
But academically competitive universities with big-time sports programs like Michigan and UNC may be precisely where the risk for this sort of compromise is greatest. And, like Schlissel said, it starts with admissions.
“The original sin of college sports is willfully admitting deficient or unprepared students into an institution,” Gerald Gurney, president of the Drake Group and the former president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics, said. “Admissions, specifically special admissions, is the single most problematic issue in college sports. It’s particularly troublesome with highly selective institutions.”
The National Collegiate Athletic Association sets minimum standards athletes must meet to be eligible to play sports, but leaves admissions practices up to individual institutions, allowing athletes who do not meet "standard or normal entrance requirements” to be admitted to colleges through “special admissions” programs. An athlete who passes the NCAA's eligibility bar and receives special admission to an open-admission institution might be much closer to the average student's credentials there than an athlete at a highly selective college.
The NCAA allows institutions to use special admissions programs as long as they also offer the opportunity to other types of students, such as those in music programs. A 2009 review by the Associated Press found that athletes were far likelier to benefit from special admissions than other types of students, identifying about 30 universities where athletes were at least 10 times more likely to be admitted through special admissions than non-athletes were.
At the University of California at Berkeley, one of the most highly selective public universities in the country, athletes were 43 times more likely to gain special admissions than non-athletes were.
When a report released in October revealed just how extensive academic fraud had been at UNC, Carol Folt, the university’s chancellor, said that one of the reasons that it went undetected for nearly two decades was that many at the university simply assumed that UNC employees were above such conduct.
Richard Southall, director of the College Sports Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, said the fraud was simply a “logical extension of the special admissions that is in place at many universities where players" are admitted based on how they can contribute to a revenue-generating sports team rather than how they can contribute to the university's academic profile.
There were, of course, signs of trouble at UNC before the investigations began, and the university has promised to step up its administrative oversight over academic support programs. But fraud aside, UNC has also long been in the practice of recruiting athletes with far lower test scores than non-athletes. According to numbers provided to The News and Observer in 2010, freshman football recruits had an average SAT score that was 300 to 400 points lower than that of the average freshman at UNC for most of the previous decade.
"Cheating scandals such as the one at the University of North Carolina are not limited to a few rogue universities," Allen Sack, a professor of sports management at the University of New Haven, writes in a forthcoming opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed. "On the contrary, violations of academic integrity are to be expected in a system that requires athletes to give so much time and attention to sports that an army of academic counselors is needed to keep athletes eligible."
Indeed, a widely cited 2008 investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that similar gaps existed at other selective institutions. Men's basketball players at the University of Cincinnati, Clemson University, UC-Berkeley and Georgia Institute of Technology all had average SAT scores of about 950. At Cincinnati, however, the basketball players were within 124 points of the rest of the student body. At Clemson, the gap was 201 points.
As the institutions become more selective or rigorous, the gap becomes a gulf. At Berkeley, the average SAT score for basketball players lagged that of all students by 350 points. At Georgia Tech, the gap was 396 points.
“You can imagine the dilemma of these athletes who are showing up with 16 ACT scores and in competition with the average student with an ACT score of 32,” Gurney said. “It is simply untenable and unethical to put an athlete with a 16 ACT in a classroom with a 32 ACT student and expect them to be successful and manage athletics on top of that.”
That doesn't mean athletes aren't capable of doing the work, said Bob Malekoff, the former director of research for the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, but they will likely require more time to devote to studying -- a luxury many big-time college football and basketball players do not have. One possible solution, would be for all colleges to use an academic index like the Ivy League, which requires that a certain number of players fall within certain standard deviations of the general student body. Another solution, often suggested by the likes of the Drake Group, would be to require athletes whose academic profile does not fall within one standard deviation of the general student body to take their freshman year off as a “year of readiness.”
“That’s a fancy way of saying freshman ineligibility,” said Malekoff, who is now a lecturer and adviser at UNC's Department of Exercise and Sport Science. “Some students you’re going to take might be not quite ready, so then you just don’t let them play varsity sports for a year and focus on remediation instead. Of course the argument is, well if we do that, then the kids are just going to go someplace else where they can play right away.”
At some universities where athletes have been expected to keep up with other students without enough time for remediation, questions about academic integrity haven’t followed too far behind.
Michigan was criticized in 2008 for, like UNC, allegedly steering athletes to independent study courses taught by a suspiciously easy grader. In 2011, Stanford admitted to providing athletes – and only athletes -- with a quarterly list of “easy” courses they could take, though the university said the list was based on ease of scheduling, not rigor.
“Michigan, Carolina, Georgia Tech, Stanford, these are schools you would predict to have this problem, and they have,” Malekoff said. “They’ve had big gaps. These are schools with very high standards, but with football and basketball players, they’re not necessarily recruiting kids that meet those standards. They’re recruiting good athletes. If they happen to be much lower than the standard, then so be it.”
While the larger gaps may provide more space for these sorts of scandals to grow, that doesn't mean all highly selective universities are going to resort to cutting corners, said Dan Mogulof, executive director of public affairs for the University of California at Berkeley. California has so far avoided the kind of widespread academic fraud that caused scandals at place like UNC, and in recent years the university has been working to close the gap between its athletes and non-athletes identified by the Associated Press in 2009.
The university is also working to improve the graduation rates of football players, an effort that began even before the university's football players ranked dead last in its conference for Graduation Success Rates in 2012. Last year, the university fired its football coach, in part, because of his team's academic performance. Eighty percent of the Golden Bears' football recruits in 2013 graduated from high school with at least a 3.0 grade point average.
"I don't think it's a matter of luck we haven't seen this type of scandal here, but at the same time we're not complacent," Mogulof said. "We're clearly in the midst of a broad and deep process of self reform, but it's being driven not by fear but by something far more fundamental.
"It's about the need to ensure our athletics program is a fully integrated part of this university in terms of the culture and what's expected here. It's about ensuring students take full advantage of what we offer here and it's about admitting the right kinds of kids."