CNN Analysis: Some College Athletes Play Like Adults, Read Like 5th-Graders

Sara Ganim, CNN, January 7, 2014

Early in her career as a learning specialist, Mary Willingham was in her office when a basketball player at the University of North Carolina walked in looking for help with his classwork.

He couldn’t read or write.

“And I kind of panicked. What do you do with that?” she said, recalling the meeting.

Willingham’s job was to help athletes who weren’t quite ready academically for the work required at UNC at Chapel Hill, one of the country’s top public universities.

But she was shocked that one couldn’t read. And then she found he was not an anomaly.

Soon, she’d meet a student-athlete who couldn’t read multisyllabic words. She had to teach him to sound out Wis-con-sin, as kids do in elementary school.

And then another came with this request: “If I could teach him to read well enough so he could read about himself in the news, because that was something really important to him,” Willingham said.

{snip}

A CNN investigation found public universities across the country where many students in the basketball and football programs could read only up to an eighth-grade level. The data obtained through open records requests also showed a staggering achievement gap between college athletes and their peers at the same institution.

This is not an exhaustive survey of all universities with major sports programs; CNN chose a sampling of public universities where open records laws apply. We sought data from a total of 37 institutions, of which 21 schools responded. {snip}

See the details of our findings

{snip}

As a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro, Willingham researched the reading levels of 183 UNC-Chapel Hill athletes who played football or basketball from 2004 to 2012. She found that 60% read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Between 8% and 10% read below a third-grade level.

“So what are the classes they are going to take to get a degree here? You cannot come here with a third-, fourth- or fifth-grade education and get a degree here,” she told CNN.

The issue was highlighted at UNC two years ago with the exposure of a scandal where students, many of them athletes, were given grades for classes they didn’t attend, and where they did nothing more than turn in a single paper. {snip}

When Willingham worked as a learning specialist for athletes from 2003 to 2010, she admits she took part in cheating, signing her name to forms that said she witnessed no NCAA rules violations when in fact she did. But the NCAA, the college sports organizing body, never interviewed her. Instead, it found no rules had been broken at Chapel Hill.

UNC now says 120 reforms put in place ensure there are no academic transgressions.

But Willingham said fake classes were just a symptom of the bigger problem of enrolling good athletes who didn’t have the reading skills to succeed at college.

“Isn’t it all cheating if I’m sitting at a table with a kid who can’t read or write at college level and pulling a paper out of them? Is this really legitimate? No,” Willingham told CNN. “I wouldn’t do that today with a college student; I only did it with athletics, because it’s necessary.”

{snip}

Willingham, now a graduation adviser with access to student files, said she believes there are still athletes at UNC who can’t do the coursework.

UNC Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham told CNN the school admits only students it believes can succeed.

“I think our students have an exceptional experience in the classroom as well as on the fields of competition,” he said.

{snip}

The NCAA admits that almost 30 athletes in sports that make revenue for schools were accepted in 2012 with very low scores–below 700 on the SAT composite, where the national average is 1000. That’s a small percentage of about 5,700 revenue-sport athletes.

However, the NCAA did not share raw data. {snip}

In fact, CNN only found one person in addition to Willingham who has ever collected data on the topic. University of Oklahoma professor Gerald Gurney found that about 10% of revenue-sport athletes there were reading below a fourth-grade level.

So, after consulting with several academic experts, CNN filed public records requests and concluded that what Willingham found at UNC and Gurney found at Oklahoma is also happening elsewhere.

The data CNN collected is based on the SAT and ACT entrance exam scores of athletes playing the revenue sports: football and basketball.

{snip}

Based on data from those requests and dozens of interviews, a CNN investigation revealed that most schools have between 7% and 18% of revenue sport athletes who are reading at an elementary school level. Some had even higher percentages of below-threshold athletes.

According to those academic experts, the threshold for being college-literate is a score of 400 on the SAT critical reading or writing test. On the ACT, that threshold is 16.

Many student-athletes scored in the 200s and 300s on the SAT critical reading test–a threshold that experts told us was an elementary reading level and too low for college classes. The lowest score possible on that part of the SAT is 200, and the national average is 500.

On the ACT, we found some students scoring in the single digits, when the highest possible score is 36 and the national average is 20. In most cases, the team average ACT reading score was in the high teens.

{snip}

Gurney, who looked into the situation at the University of Oklahoma, put it bluntly: “College presidents have put in jeopardy the academic credibility of their universities just so we can have this entertainment industry. . . . The NCAA continually wants to ignore this fact, but they are admitting students who cannot read.

“College textbooks are written at the ninth-grade level, so we are putting these elite athletes into classes where they can’t understand the textbooks. Imagine yourself sitting in a class where nothing makes sense.”

{snip}

In December, the Drake Group, which pushes for academic integrity in collegiate sports, organized a lobbying trip to Washington to push for an amendment to the College Education Act of 1965. Director Allen Sack said he wants to see a College Athlete Protection Act–legislation that would keep athletes on the bench as freshmen if they are academically more than one standard deviation lower than the average student admitted to the university.

“That’s unconscionable, to bring in a young athlete who does not fit in the general profile of the student body and have them play football on national television before they’ve entered the classroom for the first time in the fall,” Sack said.

{snip}

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