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.