“Special admits” for sports raises academic concerns

Most, if not all, colleges admit athletes who either a) have lesser academic credentials than other students or b) would not have been admitted had it not been for their athletic abilities. Recent articles compared this practice for athletes to other specially talented students, with controversial conclusions. The San Diego Union-Tribune (link here) reported that 70% of scholarship athletes at the University of California at Los Angeles and 64.5% to scholarship athletes at San Diego State University were “special admits.” In comparison, at UCLA, only 3% of non-athletic students were given special admits, while 20% of those at SDSU were not athletes.

“In order to be competitive in Division I-A athletics, you’re going to have to have some flexibility compared to your normal admission policy,” UCLA Assistant Vice Chancellor Tom Lifka told the paper. “We need those students if we’re going to be competitive in certain sports.”

Amy Perko of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics said the Commission has “consistently recommended that athletes be mainstreamed into the same academic requirements other students are subject to, so that athletes be subject to the same admission policy and criteria as other students.” The Knight Commission recently discussed this recommendation in a response (link here in PDF) to the NCAA’s 2006 Presidential Task Force Report. The Presidential Task Force report (link here) called upon changes to the special admission process “to alleviate suspicion that athlete admission is based more on the need to recruit winning teams than on academic integrity.”

All incoming athletes are required to meet minimum academic criteria set by the NCAA and individual institution admission standards. The NCAA’s Division I Committee on Athletic Certification also has ruled that special admission policies should be consistent for both athletes and students in general. But each institution has its own admissions policies, leading to a wide variety of standards and expectations.

Most requests for special admission are submitted by an institution’s athletic department. According to SDSU’s Sandra Cook, executive director of enrollment services, “the expectation is that they believe that student has every capability of succeeding with the study hall and tutors.” She also told the paper that many athletes are denied, much to the chagrin of the athletic department. However, there is concern that many “special admits” are not adequately prepared for the rigors of the academic work required of college, and many do not graduate. This prompted passage of a California State Law, the “Student Athlete Fair Opportunity Act,” which Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law last year. The new law requires California state schools to provide academic support to ensure athletes are given a fair opportunity to earn a degree.

At the University of Georgia, there does not seem to be a disproportionate level of specially admitted athletes failing when compared to the student body. According to the Athens Banner Herald (link here, subscription required), at the University of Georgia, 18% of athletes who rwere admitted under alternate processes. This rate was identical to the 4,400 members of the student body admitted in the same time frame. Georgia President Michael Adams told the paper: “”Both the athletic director and I have said we are disappointed that the numbers are not better than they are,” but he expected changes in the athletics staff would improve the results.

In addition to the new state law in California, the NCAA’s Academic Percentage Rate (APR), which measures the academic eligibility and retention of athletes, provides incentives for schools to improve grades among its athletes. Those athletic teams which fail to meet minimum APR standards can lose scholarships. Notably, SDSU lost four football scholarships in 2006 due to low APR scores. As for the APR, Perko told the paper: “The key question for every institution that allows for special admissions is whether those students are capable of achieving a degree. Those consequences are being implemented into the NCAA academic performance (APR) program.”