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.

Academic assistance

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."