It has become part of college sports -- as ingrained as dunks and FieldTurf -- for large universities to accept prized basketball and football recruits and other athletes under more forgiving admissions criteria than are used for other students.
Less understood is what happens to these top athletes once they arrive in their college classrooms. Do their grades ever catch up to those of their teammates or the rest of the student body? Do they remain in school and graduate?
Interviews and documents, obtained by The Baltimore Sun through more than a dozen public records requests, offer a rare profile of hundreds of these athletes and show that the "special admits" typically have not performed as well as other players in the classroom and pose unique and expensive academic challenges at the University of Maryland, North Carolina State, Georgia Tech and other schools.
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The Sun contacted the Atlantic Coast Conference's eight public universities -- Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia and Virginia Tech -- that are subject to open-records laws. Interviews were also conducted with a number of officials from schools in the Big Ten, the conference Maryland is scheduled to join in July 2014.
Over the next several years, schools in conferences across the country will be compelled to pay greater attention to the academic credentials of incoming athletes. In 2016, the NCAA will implement higher standards for freshmen to be permitted to play. Eligibility standards are based on a formula that considers athletes' GPAs and SAT scores. "Too many special admits are not capable of doing college work and competition on Day One," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told an NCAA convention this year.
Because special admits -- they go by different names at different schools -- usually enter with marginal records, it is not surprising that they generally don't fare as well as other students in their college courses. It has not been documented -- there is no national database -- how large the academic achievement gap is. In many cases, The Sun's review showed, the disparity can be sizable. The specially classified team members tend to maintain worse college GPAs, graduate at a lower rate and leave school at a higher rate than other athletes, according to documents and interviews. Maryland and a few other schools counter that their special-admit team members -- and their athletes as a whole -- are faring better academically than in years past.
Special admits include many team members in the marquee sport of football -- which has larger rosters and recruits more players than other sports -- and men's basketball.
In the fall of 2005, Maryland enrolled 23 athletes who were "individual admits" -- a category referred to in school documents as academically "at-risk." Twelve, or 52 percent, graduated, the school said in response to an information request. That compares with Maryland's most recent Graduation Success Rate -- a school-record 83 percent for its overall group of more than 500 athletes, according to the NCAA.
Also in 2005, North Carolina State accepted 23 athletes as part of a "special consideration process" it says is designed to admit students "with exceptional talents in areas important to the university community." Eight, or 35 percent, graduated, according to a registrar's report presented in April to the Board of Trustees. Two went pro, 10 withdrew in good academic standing, two left as ineligible and one was suspended.
Twenty-three of the 41 (56 percent) specially considered athletes who entered N.C. State over the next two years -- 2006 and 2007 -- had graduated by March 20 this year.
The university's most recent Graduation Success Rate for all of its roughly 550 athletes is 77 percent. "The number we want big is, of course, graduation," said Carrie Leger, director of N.C. State's academic support program for athletes. "We can't control when people leave or transfer or have a chance to go professional."
At Illinois, 88 athletes were endorsed by a special admissions committee for enrollment in the fall of 2008. By the spring of 2011, 17 were no longer at the university, according to a report obtained under a public records law.
By comparison, 54 of 55 other Illinois athletes -- who were admitted through regular channels in the same period -- remained at the school.
Stacey Kostell, the Illinois undergraduate admissions director, said that while the university has an excellent record of retaining athletes, some inevitably leave. "There are particular sports where students leave for professional opportunities," she said.
Special-admit athletes are part of the ultracompetitive college sports landscape. Schools that don't make admissions allowances risk losing out on recruits who enable them to succeed in football and men's basketball, the programs with the best chance to make money.
But some athletes clearly struggle with their classwork. In recent years, at least a few ACC special admits have been found -- once they arrived in college -- to read at an elementary school level, according to conference sources. The schools redacted players' names and won't discuss individual cases to comply with federal privacy law.
Attention to academics
The issue of athletes' academic performances has come increasingly under media scrutiny. This year, a University of North Carolina internal review found what the university called "irregularities" -- including academic fraud and poor oversight -- in courses taken by athletes and others in the African and Afro-American Studies department.
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a watchdog group, has expressed concern about institutions lowering academic requirements for many athletes but not for comparable numbers of other students who might be artists or dancers, or possess other skills.
Some of the schools' records hint at the steep challenges faced by special admits to keep pace when their academic qualifications are notably lower than other entering students.
In March, Georgia Tech issued a news release announcing that the average high school GPA for all students accepted for the fall semester was 3.9.
The academic profile of a group of 21 Georgia Tech special-admit football players from recent years looked much different. They had a combined average high school GPA of 2.19, according to an "athletes historical report" provided in March in response to an open-records request. The players entered the university between 2005 and last year.
Five special-admit men's basketball players listed in Georgia Tech's report had high school GPAs ranging from 2.16 to 2.42. The group's SAT critical reading scores averaged 476, and its SAT math scores averaged 454.
Once at Georgia Tech, the five players' GPAs averaged 2.16. Two were listed in good standing and two were on academic "warning," meaning their recent performance was unsatisfactory. One was on academic probation. Three of the five were still enrolled as of 2011, according to the report.
In a written statement last week, Georgia Tech told The Sun that academic advising and tutoring for athletes was moved from the Athletics Association in 2011 into the Office of the Provost, and is now the responsibility of the vice provost for undergraduate education. "The average GPA of the men's basketball and football teams have risen steadily over that period, and no student athletes have been academically dropped or dismissed from Georgia Tech since Fall, 2010," the school's statement said.
Although football has the most special admits, there are special admits at ACC schools in men's and women's basketball, men's soccer, men's golf, men's and women's swimming, women's lacrosse, women's volleyball, women's tennis and other sports, according to schools' records.
Rewards and risks
Backers of special admissions programs say universities need flexibility to accept students whose academic profiles might not look like those of the rest of the student body. "College athletics are part of the total experience for all of our students, and the university wants to be competitive," Clemson undergraduate admissions director Robert Barkley said. "At the same time, we want to have a great band. There are not a whole lot of oboe players out there."
Other proponents say special admissions provide educational and athletic opportunities for students who wouldn't otherwise qualify to attend good schools.
"A lot of them are the first in their family to go to college. A lot of them didn't go to the best schools," said Nick Hadley, a Maryland physics professor who is the school's faculty athletics representative. Given that Maryland accepts about 4,000 students in an incoming class, Hadley said it was reasonable "to take some sort of chance" on a relatively small group of special-admit athletes. Like many other universities, Maryland also makes admissions allowances for nonathletes in the arts and other programs.
Fifteen of the 23 (65 percent) individual-admit athletes who began at Maryland in 2006 have graduated, an improvement over the previous year's group "we'd love to continue," Hadley said.
Maryland permits an average of 26 individual admits per year. There are no current plans to increase that number once the school enters the Big Ten, known historically for its football prowess. "Right now I don't see that we would be changing that," Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson said.
Critics say many schools capitalize on special admits' talents without giving enough back.
"I am not opposed [to] the 'special admissions' for students with a proven commitment to overcoming educational disadvantages," Allen Sack, a sports management professor at the University of New Haven College of Business, said in an email reply to The Sun. "However, these 'special admits' should not be playing big-time college sports as freshmen. It is unconscionable that 'special admits' often find themselves playing a football game on national television before having attended their first college class as freshmen. Talk about misplaced priorities," said Sack, president of the Drake Group, an NCAA watchdog organization and a member of Notre Dame's 1966 national championship football team.
Among the ACC athletes entering school with special academic needs was senior Maryland football player Kenneth Tate, a safety-turned-linebacker who was a highly coveted recruit from DeMatha Catholic High School.
As a freshman, Tate was at times overwhelmed. He said he was left so exhausted by the combination of courses, practices and team meetings that he would sometimes fall asleep with the light on in the dormitory suite he shared with other players. When he wasn't practicing or in class, Tate could often be found in a computer lab working with a learning specialist on such skills as taking notes, writing papers and time management.
Tate's program is designed to get athletes who need it up to speed academically. The name was changed in 2011 from the Intensive Learning Program to the Academic Enrichment Program, or AEP. "The kids felt there was a bit of a stigma," said Chris Uchacz, the academic support director.
The roughly 75 students in AEP include individual admits and other Maryland athletes. There is an AEP lab inside Comcast Center that overlooks a field used for intramurals; another lab is inside the Gossett Football Team House.
"The goal is to ensure they are proactive, independent learners," Uchacz said. "Most are in it for a year."
It can cost schools millions of dollars to pay for tutors, mentors, computer labs and other forms of academic support for players.
In 2010, Nebraska, a Big Ten school, opened an $8.7 million, 50,000-square-foot center for athletes that includes an academic and "life skills" center.
"Sometimes people will ask me: 'Why do the athletes have academic support when that's not available to the general population?'" said Dennis Leblanc, a senior associate athletic director. He said he tells them about athletes' weight training, practices and team meetings in addition to their studies. "I say, 'You know, there's not many people that can handle that type of schedule.'"
Tate, an American studies major, is in his fifth year at Maryland — he missed most of the 2011 season with a knee injury — and said he was on track to graduate at the end of this calendar year.
Because of federal privacy considerations, Maryland won't comment on whether Tate — or any other named student — was an individual admit.
In 2009, Maryland released a five-year athletics plan setting a goal of graduating 60 percent of its individual-admit athletes.
It might not have seemed an ambitious target — after all, the school graduates 83 percent of its athletes overall — but it reflected the particular academic challenges posed by special admits. Athletes who transferred from Maryland in good academic standing weren't counted against the school's 83 percent Graduation Success Rate.
Programs differ by school
Schools have significant variations in their special-admit programs, making comparisons problematic. "There is no standard definition — every institution defines it differently," N.C. State's Leger said.
Some universities — such as Virginia, Virginia Tech and Nebraska — said they do not have special-admissions programs for athletes by any name. "All of our students — no matter who they are — go through the same process," said Amber Hunter, executive director of Nebraska's undergraduate admissions office.
Florida State calls special admits "exceptions." The number admitted has ranged from 11 to 27 in recent years, according to school records. Five of 11 "exceptions" who entered in the summer of 2007 graduated, three transferred or otherwise withdrew, and two remained enrolled as of the fall of 2011.
"My personal belief is that none could come in and graduate from the university without the proper support. They are academically challenged," said John Barnhill, Florida State's assistant vice president for enrollment management.
Barnhill said the university clearly benefits from the special admits' athletic talents. "It's a little disingenuous to throw it all off on humanitarian concerns," he said. "I am admitting them because they have a talent that is useful to the university. But, to me, education is a transforming experience. I think they're doing very well or we wouldn't admit them to begin with."
"Success" can be a relative term with academically at-risk athletes. "Sometimes a success story is making a 2.0 and graduating," Barnhill said.
North Carolina has a particularly large admissions program for athletes but doesn't call it "special admissions." The athletics department can recommend an average of 160 candidates each year for admission, according to the school. The recommended athletes — most of whom are accepted — generally account for about three-quarters of UNC's athletes in a given class. They are not "an at-risk group," said Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions. "It's a group whose special talent has qualified them for admission to Carolina with the expectation that they will graduate," Farmer said.
The group that entered in 2010 had a combined UNC GPA of 2.61, according to the most currently available data. The average GPA for the 2009 group was 2.38. The average GPA of all UNC undergraduates, including nonathletes, is generally about 3.0 or 3.1, Farmer said.
UNC's athletics department recommendations include an average of 16 to 20 students per year who don't meet all the usual admissions criteria. A high school athlete who isn't predicted to reach a first-year GPA of at least 2.3 must have his application reviewed by a faculty subcommittee.
In addition to toughening freshman eligibility standards, the NCAA is raising the minimum Academic Progress Rates scores during the next several years, meaning more schools could be in danger of being denied postseason play.
Duncan, the education secretary, played high school and college basketball and said he has seen too many athletes being "used" by schools.
"I played with inner-city stars who had been used and dumped by their universities," Duncan told the NCAA convention in January. "Ultimately, they had nothing to show for the wins, the championships, and the revenues they brought to their schools."
Anderson, who arrived at the school in October 2010, said he doesn't believe Maryland's individual-admit athletes are being exploited for their talents.
Anderson said he hopes college athletes understand there is value to their scholarships beyond athletics and that they are taking full advantage of their educational opportunities.
"I think we're doing a good job with them," Anderson said of Maryland's individual admits. "I think you can always do better."