AJC Investigation: Many Athletes Lag Far Behind on SAT Scores

Mike Knobler, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 28, 2008

Football and men’s basketball players on the nation’s big-time college teams averaged hundreds of points lower on their SATs than their classmates, and some of the gaps are so large they call into question the lengths to which schools will go to win.

The biggest gap between football players and students as a whole occurred at the University of Florida, where players scored 346 points lower than the school’s overall student body. That’s larger than the difference in scores between typical students at the University of Georgia and Harvard University.

Nationwide, football players average 220 points lower on the SAT than their classmates—and men’s basketball players average seven points less than football players.

Those figures come from an Atlanta Journal-Constitution study of 54 public universities, including the members of the six major Bowl Championship Series conferences and other schools whose teams finished the 2007-08 season ranked among the football or men’s basketball top 25.

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Nationwide, coaches who would never offer a scholarship to a player who was 6 inches shorter or half a second slower than other prospects routinely recruit players whose standardized test scores suggest they’re at a competitive disadvantage in the classroom.

It’s the price of winning.

“If you’re going to mount a competitive program in Division I-A, and our institution is committed to do that, some flexibility in admissions of athletes is going to take place,” said Tom Lifka, chairman of the committee that handles athlete admissions at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Every institution I know in the country operates in the same way. It may or may not be a good thing, but that’s the way it is.”

UCLA, which has won more NCAA championships in all sports than any other school, had the biggest gap between the average SAT scores of athletes in all sports and its overall student body, at 247 points.

Administrators such as Lifka say the SAT gap between athletes and non-athletes is the price of fielding a team, and they argue what’s important is that large numbers of their scholarship athletes earn degrees. Critics say athletes who arrive on campus unprepared to compete academically get shuffled off to easy majors and unchallenging courses and don’t receive much of an education.

Questions about fairness

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Who gets hurt? Former Princeton University President William Bowen points to the students the colleges would have admitted if they hadn’t enrolled less qualified athletes.

“There are grounds for concern,” Bowen said. “Places at a lot of these schools are precious things. To have them allocated this way raises troubling questions about fairness, about taking advantage of educational opportunity.”

But Georgia Tech men’s basketball coach Paul Hewitt says he and other coaches are able to go beyond test scores to find recruits who can succeed in school while also having the talent to play at a high level.

Hewitt says the only fair comparison is between athletes and other students with similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Seen that way, he argues, athletics programs perform very well. Black athletes, for example, graduate at higher rates than black students as a whole.

“To insinuate that athletics has caused this problem of poor graduation rates [among black students] is wrong,” Hewitt said.

The Journal-Constitution obtained the test scores and other academic data from reports each major college athletics department is required to file with the NCAA, college sports’ governing body. The NCAA considers the reports confidential; the Journal-Constitution obtained them under state public record laws.

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The differences in the age of the data make comparisons among the schools imperfect, but there are two reasons to think they’re still noteworthy. First, there’s little difference on average between the figures for the schools with the oldest data and those with the newest. Second, each school reported figures for three consecutive freshman classes, and the average change in the football team’s SAT scores was less than three points between a school’s oldest class and its most recent. Twenty-seven schools improved their average football SAT; 26 didn’t. Also, regardless of the differences between individual schools, some universal truths emerged:

o All 53 schools for which football SAT scores were available had at least an 88-point gap between team members’ average score and the average for the student body.

o Schools with the highest admissions standards, such as Georgia Tech; the University of Virginia; the University of California, Berkeley; UCLA; and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had the biggest gaps between the SAT averages for athletes and the overall student body.

o Football players performed 115 points worse on the SAT than male athletes in other sports.

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o Many schools routinely used a special admissions process to admit athletes who did not meet the normal entrance requirements. More than half of scholarship athletes at the University of Georgia, the University of Wisconsin, Clemson University, UCLA, Rutgers University, Texas A&M University and Louisiana State University were special admits.

“If the university says they’d help us meet team needs, that’s as important as finding an oboist for the orchestra,” said Nancy McDuff, the University of Georgia’s associate vice president for admissions and enrollment management.

Special admissions

The numbers, however, show special admissions exceptions are used far more often for athletes than oboists. At Georgia, for instance, 73.5 percent of athletes were special admits compared with 6.6 percent of the student body as a whole.

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Even Sperber, a critic of the college athletics system, says the test scores in the Journal-Constitution study should not feed a dumb jock stereotype. Instead, he said, the scores reflect the students’ background and their focus on sports over academics.

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NCAA President Myles Brand said the big question isn’t whether athletes are as qualified as other students when they enroll but whether, given help, they can obtain degrees. “What you are really looking for is whether the student-athletes who are being accepted have the capability of graduating from that institution with the academic support they have available,” Brand said.

Schools make the call

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The decision how far to go in lowering admissions standards for athletes varies considerably from school to school. It can be a challenge to avoid a race to the bottom.

“We go out on the field and get beaten by people we couldn’t admit,” said Charles Young, former president of the University of Florida and former chancellor of UCLA. “It creates strong pressures to go [to rival schools’ admissions standards], and there have to be very strong countervailing pressures to avoid going there.”

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“They’re saying we’ll take just about anybody as long as we can get them through,” said Allen Sack, director of the University of New Haven’s Institute for Sport Management and a former University of Notre Dame football player. “They’re betting what they can do is they can get anyone through school if they get the right kind of counseling.”

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