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.'"
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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."