UNC-Chapel Hill’s Embarrassing Problem

Three years after the revelation that UNC-Chapel Hill’s African and Afro-American Studies Department offered no-show classes, the Carolina community is still grappling with academic-athletic scandals at the North Carolina flagship.

The current question is how many of UNC’s recruited revenue athletes read so poorly that they should be in middle-school, not college.

If one whistleblower’s research is correct, UNC-Chapel Hill admitted—and probably recruited—a significant number of students who read far below the college level. The university itself concludes that there were some such students, but only six over an eight-year period of time, according to Provost James W. Dean, Jr.

The Pope Center has attempted to reconcile the conflicting information. Whoever is right, it’s clear that the processes used to recruit, admit, and test athletes were designed to identify and promote athletic talent at the expense of academic merit.

Teaching specialist Mary Willingham reignited this issue late last year, when she told various media outlets that some Carolina athletes were reading at an elementary or middle school level. Willingham analyzed data for 183 “at risk” athletes admitted between 2004 and 2012. The athletes she studied took a battery of tests in order to identify potential learning disabilities.

Of those athletes, about 85 percent came from the revenue sports of football and basketball. Willingham concluded from her analysis that 60 percent, or 110 athletes, had reading scores that equated to fourth- through eighth-grade levels. Worse yet, another 8 percent to 10 percent were reading below the third-grade level, she said.

The university countered Willingham’s research in an official statement, then followed up with its own study of student-athletes’ reading skills, but only after suspending Willingham’s research. She has since resigned from UNC-Chapel Hill.

For its own study, the university hired three outside experts to reexamine the data on UNC’s at-risk athletes (scroll down the linked page to get links to their studies).  Those analysts stated that the initial screening test, called the SATA-Reading Vocabulary subtest, given to all 180 athletes and used by Willingham in her analysis, “should not be used to draw conclusions about student reading ability.” That is because the RV assesses only a person’s knowledge of vocabulary. The three experts also noted that the SATA-RV has no grading norms below tenth grade and therefore Willingham must have extrapolated downwards to arrive at estimates for middle and elementary reading levels.

Provost James Dean gave additional details in an interview with the Pope Center. He explained that of the approximately 180 at-risk athletes, 60 were referred for further screening based in part on the SATA-RV scores. Those 60 athletes took the SATA subtest for reading comprehension (SATA-RC). Of those, he said only six showed signs of potential reading problems. (See Diagram 1.)

Reading Assessment at UNC-Chapel Hill, 2004-2012

There is a huge gulf between Willingham’s figure (up to 120) and the university’s (6). Part of the discrepancy lies in methodology.

Willingham, testing the entire 180-student at-risk group, used some combination of SATA-RV scores (but not the reading comprehension test), SAT scores, and personal experience. (Willingham has not specified her exact methodology.) UNC, however, after identifying the 60 most at-risk student-athletes, gave those students the SATA-Reading Comprehension test. Based on that test, it claimed that a maximum of 10 students in the sample had reading problems.

The university’s outside experts, in an attempt to replicate Willingham’s results, concluded that she could not have obtained her figures using SATA-RV tests alone because, they stated, a “majority of the students referenced in the public claims scored at or above college entry level on the SATA Reading Vocabulary subtest.”

But even fellow UNC-Chapel Hill reading specialist Bradley Bethel, a staunch defender of the university’s position and one of Willingham’s biggest critics, admits that there is a problem with athlete recruitment. In an email to Chancellor Carol Folt, he stated that there have been “many student-athletes who were specially admitted whose academic preparedness is so low they cannot succeed here.”

Each year, student-athletes are admitted to North Carolina’s competitive sports schools under “special talents waivers.” They either lack the required course prerequisites, or do not meet minimum SAT or ACT scores or their grade point averages fall below the minimum admission standard (2.3 and 750 in fall 2012). Some may fail to meet all three measures.

As the table below (Table 1) shows, special admissions are particularly problematic at the system’s most athletically competitive schools, which are highlighted. At UNC-Chapel Hill, three athletes were admitted who did not take all the high school courses usually required for admission to the UNC system. Between one and four athletes (exact numbers cannot be reported due to privacy regulations) were admitted who did not meet either the minimum GPA or SAT requirements.

Recruited Freshman Student Athlete Admissions Exceptions, 2012-13

The table also compares athletes’ average SAT scores and GPAs to those of all students. At the big sports schools, athletes’ averages fall in the bottom quartile of all students, which makes it extremely difficult for athletes to succeed in the classroom. At UNC-Chapel Hill, the average SAT score of recruited athletes on the men’s football team was 1060, putting those students at the very bottom of their class.

Whether some athletes read below middle school level or simply are simply less prepared than their peers, the outcome for them and for the university is the same: the students struggle to balance sports and classes and the university has a strong incentive to keep those students eligible—by whatever means necessary.

Student-athletes face punishing schedules—particularly in revenue sports. If they’re doing everything by the book, they must practice, work out, travel, play, go to class, and study. Such students essentially work two jobs: one as students and one as athletes. In fact, a National Labor Relations Board regional director ruled in March that Northwestern University’s scholarship football players could unionize because they are employees of the school, working at a sports job.

Unlike musicians or artists who enter using the same waivers and then study music or art, athletes’ special talents on the field do not help them in the classroom. Student-athletes can’t major in football or basketball. And most of them will eventually have to “go pro” in something other than sports.

Without special assistance, student-athletes’ poor preparation would lead to failure in the classroom. But allowing that to happen would prevent athletes from remaining eligible, and thus profitable, for the university. So athletic departments, tutors, and unprincipled professors who are more concerned about winning than learning help them out.

We shouldn’t be surprised. When students enter a university less prepared than their peers, expecting them to be successful both on and off the field is a recipe for cheating. Nearly since the inception of college athletics, observers have known, as Harvard president Charles Eliot declared at the turn of the last century, the fact “that cheating [is] profitable is the main evil.”

Whether the number of unprepared athletes at UNC-Chapel Hill is 110 or far fewer, it is a problem for the university and the students themselves. The university, the system, and the NCAA must reform.

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series. An upcoming article (found here) will examine proposed athletics reforms.)