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?
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|
|Arkansas||1157||1022||910||247||Did Not Provide||N/A||2001-3|
|Kansas State||1085||1024||Did Not Provide||N/A||Did Not Provide||N/A||1998-2000|
|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|
|North Carolina State||1182||1031||916||266||926||256||2000-2|
|Oregon||1100||1018||Did Not Provide||N/A||953||147||2002-4|
|South Florida||1099||993||Did Not Provide||N/A||932||167||2003-5|
|Virginia||1323||1129||Did Not Provide||N/A||993||330||2002-4|
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution