Lowering the bar
UF's athletes play by a different set of academic rules
Published: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 2:07 a.m.
With a 4.15 weighted grade-point average and a 1,510 out of 1,600 possible points on her SAT, Ashlee Hardin had no trouble getting into the University of Florida.
MONDAY - Student-athletes and admissions at the University of Florida.
TUESDAY - Supporting student-athletes at the University of Florida.
WEDNESDAY - Life after college sports.
Despite UF's daunting and steadily climbing admissions standards, the Orlando freshman's academic qualifications were well above the average for the 2002 freshman class - a 3.81 grade-point average and a 1,231 SAT.
DeShawn Wynn had no trouble getting into UF either, thanks to a different set of numbers.
As a running back for Reading High School in Cincinnati, Wynn rushed for more than 2,000 yards a season in three of his four high school years. The Parade Magazine All-American rushed for 2,283 yards in his senior year alone, averaging 9.3 yards a carry and scoring 30 touchdowns.
It didn't matter that his academic credentials were less impressive, by UF standards: a 2.5 grade-point average and an 18 out of 36 possible points on the ACT college admissions test. The average ACT score for all entering freshmen at UF was 26.3 in the 2002-2003 school year.
As do all competitive Division I sports programs, UF admits a majority of scholarship athletes whose academic credentials - measured in grade-point averages and test scores - are below those of the average incoming freshman.
In fact, each year, between 25 and 40 entering student-athletes, out of a recruiting class that ranges between 90 and 120, will be required to take remedial summer courses in math, English or both before enrolling in the fall.
Because of their potential to contribute to UF's mammoth athletic enterprise, which took in $34 million last year, scholarship athletes face lower hurdles when it comes to admissions.
But how low is too low? And what kind of academic future awaits poorly prepared student-athletes who have the built-in distractions of training, practicing and playing in the fishbowl of big-time college sports?
The University Athletic Association has budgeted $1.93 million this year for tutors, advisers, computer labs and oversight for UF's 460 student-athletes - roughly $4,200 for each one - served by the Office of Student Life.
For the least-prepared, academic life will take on an intensity that rivals a military boot camp, as UF's extensive support system works to keep them eligible to compete and on track for graduation.
Those who take remedial classes are labeled "at-risk," assigned mentors and are required to attend extra study hall and weekly "supplemental instruction." The mentors stay in constant contact with the student-athletes, helping them with time management and making sure they're going to class and turning in assignments.
Despite the extra help, some student-athletes still won't see their success on the field carry over into the classroom.
Of the 1995-96 entering class, 51 percent of student-athletes graduated from UF, compared to 70 percent of the student body as a whole, according to the 2002 NCAA graduation report. The NCAA gives student-athletes six years to earn a diploma.
As is the norm for Division I schools, UF's graduation rates for men's sports were lower - 44 percent compared to 67 percent for the entire male student body.
For football players, the graduation rate was 32 percent. In basketball, which carries the lowest graduation rate at most Division I schools, UF had a 67 percent graduation rate - matching the figure for the male student population.
UF administrators don't like the way the NCAA calculates its graduation rates, because student-athletes who go pro or transfer in good standing count against them.
Still, UF Athletic Director Jeremy Foley acknowledges that graduation rates "aren't where they should be."
While there are academically exceptional athletes, no one suggests that the majority come into UF on a level playing field with the student body at large.
UF President Charles Young said, "I think every university in the country has the same kind of practice . . . If you're going to participate in intercollegiate athletics at any really competitive level, then you're going to have to make some provisions that are a little different in terms of those who are brought in as student-athletes than those who are not.
"And I can't do anything more to rationalize it than that."
The vast majority of the students who require remedial classes are football players and track athletes, according to an analysis performed by UF's Intercollegiate Athletic Council, a 12-year-old watchdog group started by former UF President John Lombardi to keep an eye on the academic performance of athletes.
Wynn, who was required to enroll in summer school, said, "I had some catching up to do because I didn't take school real seriously when I was in ninth or 10th grade."
He said he knows student-athletes get special consideration to get into UF, and a lot of help the average student doesn't get after they arrive. But, he thinks student-athletes deserve it.
"Student-athletes have a lot more to worry about than the average student," Wynn said. "But they get better treatment than the other students, so I guess it balances out."
The lowered bar for athletes doesn't trouble Hardin, either.
"I think if everybody was held to the same academic standards, our athletic program would not be what it is," she said. "To get the best athletes, you have to lower the standards."
Taking a chance
Before he made his way to UF, the South and its football-obsessed tradition, Young expressed a greater degree of frustration about the academic divide between "regular" students and student-athletes.
In 1990, while chancellor of UCLA and a member of the NCAA President's Commission, Young suggested that admitting underqualified student-athletes to a prestigious university was "academically indefensible."
"Isn't it really academically indefensible to grant admission to UCLA to someone with a 700 on his SAT and a 2.0 grade-point average?" Young said, according to an NCAA Web site. "I can't see why we put ourselves in these positions."
Asked to square the two statements, Young wrote recently that they were not contradictory.
"I said that we have to do things that may be a little different," Young wrote in an e-mail. "Certainly admitting someone to UCLA with a 700 SAT or a 2.0 GPA is not a little different from what we otherwise do."
"The same would be true for UF," he wrote. "On the other hand, maybe a 1050 and a 3.2 might be OK."
But UF routinely admits scholarship athletes with a 2.5 grade-point average and an 800 SAT, according to Admissions Director Bill Kolb. The grade-point average can be even lower if the test score is higher, and vice versa, he added.
"I think we do athletes a disservice when we make these huge exceptions," said one Gainesville High School teacher who taught basketball standout Orien Greene, a player who squeaked into UF academically and later transferred, in part because of his grades.
"Because we take a student with very limited academic skills and place them in a classroom with well-prepared students and expect them to succeed, the likelihood of failure is very high," said the teacher, who asked not to be identified.
Winning on the line
Of course, not all student-athletes need an assist to get in.
Of the roughly 121 entering students offered athletic scholarships in the 2000-2001 school year, 29 had a combination of high school grades and test scores equal to, or above, the 2001-2002 student body average.
Forward Matt Bonner got a 1,350 on the SAT and last year became the third athlete in UF history - and the first basketball player - named first team National Academic All-American of the Year by CoSIDA, the College Sports Information Directors of America.
And Bonner is emphatic about the need for separate admission standards for athletes.
"High-performing athletes are a scarce resource," said Bonner, who is averaging about 14 points a game in his senior season. "If you could keep the standards the same for everyone and still get the same caliber of athlete, that would be great.
"But unfortunately, it doesn't work that way."
Consider the Vanderbilt Commodores, whose lofty academic standards for athletes produced nine engineering majors on the football team and a record 30 football players named to the All-Southeastern Conference Academic Honor Roll in the 2001 season.
But Vandy hasn't had a winning season in football since 1982. They were 2-10 in 2002, including 0-8 in the SEC.
The Commodores may have the highest academic standards for athletes in the SEC, but the Gators certainly don't have the lowest, according to Foley.
"There are a lot of kids out there we're not allowed to recruit because they have no opportunity of meeting the predictive index and getting into the University of Florida," he said.
The predictive index is a mathematical formula developed by professors in UF's College of Business to predict what a student's first semester grade-point average will be at UF. It uses a student's high school grade-point average and college admissions test score, giving greater weight to high school grades.
"There's a screening process out front," said Admissions Director Kolb. "(Recruiting) coaches will go out and not only evaluate the students for athletic talent, but for admissibility."
Early in the recruitment process, coaches send a prospect's high school transcript and test scores, via the Office of Student Life, to the admissions office, which employs one full-time person who does nothing but evaluate scholarship athletes' academic credentials. That person's salary is paid by the University Athletic Association, the not-for-profit corporation that is responsible for UF's intercollegiate athletics program.
An entity separate from UF, UAA's sources of funding include donations and ticket sales, as well as money from conferences, sponsorships, royalties and TV rights.
"The coaches don't want to get blind-sided," Kolb said. "No one looks good when we sign a student-athlete and they eventually cannot be admitted to the university."
The admissions office will then send a letter to the Office of Student Life, which forwards it to the recruiting coach. The report may say the student-athlete looks to be qualified, is questionable depending on his or her senior-year grades and test scores or will not qualify for admission.
"In some cases, we may even recommend they don't even let them come to the campus for a visit, because there's literally no hope," Kolb said.
Because coaches have a good idea what the parameters are, less than 10 percent of the transcripts that are sent in get the "no-hope" stamp, said Keith Carodine, UF's associate athletic director for academic affairs.
Pushing the envelope
It's not that coaches don't try to recruit students with no chance to make it academically at UF, Foley said.
When coaches are told a hot prospect doesn't meet the predictive-index cutoff, they frequently will ask to bring them in under a special exception through the provost's office.
"I can't tell you the number of athletes in my 11 years as A.D. here (who) don't have any shot . . . of succeeding here academically, and the coaches may see only what this individual can mean to their respective team," Foley said.
"You know, we're not going to go over to the admissions committee and ask them for something that cannot work, OK? That's what we've got to understand, too," he said. "It's not a matter of where every time there's somebody that can run real fast - and we don't care whether they can read or write - and we take it right over there and see if we can appeal it.
"No, there has to be something that we believe - that our academic people believe after interviewing the kids, and knowing how the institution works, knowing the track record and the ability to be successful on this campus - there has to be something that leads us to believe there can be some academic success or we won't even go over there," Foley said.
"Over there" is the office of Provost David Colburn, who is asked to make exceptions for five to 10 outstanding athletes each year.
Colburn said he considers all the merits and then gives his answer, which he said has been "no" in two of the 20 or so cases presented to him over the past two years.
"The Athletic Association won't bring people to me when they know they won't come in," Colburn said, explaining the low rejection ratio. "The ones that get to me are by and large debatable, and they're the ones the Athletic Association is lobbying heavily for."
Foley said some life circumstances - in particular for inner-city kids - should be factored into the equation.
"Obviously, some of the people we're recruiting have special circumstances, and I'm not talking about their athletic ability," Foley said. "There may be some outside situations that may have caused them early on in their academic career not to have the appropriate focus."
While he served as a member of the NCAA Presidents' Council in 1990, Young said his opinion evolved about sports as a way out of the inner city.
"For a long time, I held the view that the athletics scholarship may be the only way out of poverty and the inner city for many young people," an NCAA Web site quoted him as saying. "Now, I'm not sure that doesn't actually do a disservice to those communities because some may believe it is the only way out."
When UF does reject a top-flight athlete, as likely as not, the coach will be seeing them again - on an opposing team.
"The reality is (in the SEC) only Florida and Georgia have a predictive index," Carodine said. "In fact, there are some schools that you look in their catalog and they'll say just meeting NCAA standards is sufficient to be a scholarship athlete."
At present, a 2.0 grade-point average in 13 core high school courses and a 700 SAT are the minimum NCAA admissions requirements.
But in October, the NCAA adopted new rules that seem to raise the admissions bar in one area and lower it in another for high school seniors hoping to participate in sports in college.
Starting Aug. 1, student-athletes will be required to complete 14, rather than 13, core courses. But gone is the 700 SAT score cutoff, replaced with a sliding grade/test score cutoff that will take students who score 400 on the SAT if they have a 3.55 grade-point average.
Those changes won't make a difference at UF, Foley said.
"We're still going to do it based on the criteria and the standards (the admissions office) has put together, and the NCAA standards will have no bearing on that."
Coaches, who know their players will likely be lining up against their own rejects, can be less than understanding when they're told "no."
In an infamous example in the fall of 2000, then-Gator football coach Steve Spurrier wrote a scathing letter to Kolb, the admissions director, when the admissions committee refused to admit Belle Glade defensive standout Santonio Thomas.
"We spent approximately 15 months recruiting, signing and establishing a personal relationship with (Thomas) and his family," Spurrier wrote to Kolb. "Then we're told he's not worthy to come to our university. The admissions people obviously don't give a damn about this one player."
Spurrier later apologized for the letter, in which he also wrote, "If Santonio Thomas helps Miami kick our butts when we play them in 2002 and 2003, I hope Mr. Kolb and his committee realize their contributions to our football team and our university."
As it turned out, playing left tackle behind senior and Lombardi Award contender William Joseph, Thomas wasn't much of a factor in Miami's 41-16 spanking of the Gators on Sept. 7.
Spurrier also had some success stories asking for special exceptions to admissions rules, including the case of Ben Hanks. As a senior out of a tough inner-city school in Miami, Hanks' core grade-point average was so low Spurrier personally appealed to then-UF President Lombardi, promising to take the linebacker under his wing.
Dr. Nick Cassisi, UF's faculty representative to the NCAA and SEC, recalled when Lombardi asked him to mediate the standoff between Spurrier and then-Provost Andy Sorensen.
Cassisi said Sorensen was adamantly opposed to the idea, telling him, "I am not admitting this guy."
Spurrier was equally adamant, saying, "This guy can make it here," Cassisi recalled.
In the end, Lombardi sent Cassisi back to Spurrier with this message: " 'Tell him I am only going to go against my provost one time,' " Cassisi said. " 'Is this the time?' "
"Steve said, 'This is the one.' "
Spurrier took his own No. 11 out of retirement for Hanks, who went on to become a team captain at UF and to earn his degree in recreation, parks and tourism in four years.
Staying on track
For most players, it doesn't make much sense to admit them if they're underqualified for UF, Foley said.
But it's hard to explain that to the boosters, some of whom follow recruiting news almost as closely as the coaches do.
"People pay attention to recruiting, and when there is somebody we can't get into school here, everybody gets all upset and everything," Foley said.
"I tell people this institution can let anybody they want in this school," Foley said. "The question is: Will they be here two years from now?
"Getting into the school is the least of the battles. What's the biggest battle is, once they get here, being able to do the work, progress and meet the NCAA standards-for-progress rules.
"You don't win with a bunch of freshmen, right? You win with people who have been in the system a while and who have grown and matured."
NCAA rules require student-athletes to have completed 25 percent of their course work by the start of their third year of enrollment, and to have a 1.8 grade-point average. By the start of their fourth year, student-athletes must have 50 percent of their degree finished and have a 1.9 grade-point average. And, beginning their fifth year of enrollment, student-athletes must have 75 percent of their courses completed.
To these rules, UF adds a requirement that going into their second year, student-athletes must have a 1.7 grade-point average. Also, UF aims to keep all students above a 2.0, and if student-athletes' grades dip too far below that, they may be dismissed.
But UF routinely admits student-athletes whose predictive index number says they're likely to get as low as a 1.6 grade-point average in the first year, Kolb said.
That's because with UF's extensive support system of tutors, mentors, counselors and advisers, student-athletes can be expected to perform four-tenths of a grade point higher than a non-athlete, Kolb said.
But there has been a dip in the average predictive index in recent years that is troublesome to UF's Intercollegiate Athletic Committee.
Appointed by the provost, the six-member faculty committee recommends policy changes on academic issues affecting, or affected by, intercollegiate athletics; monitors admissions and academic progress of all student-athletes and changes in NCAA rules and procedures; and reviews the institution's compliance program.
Seven non-voting members are also on the committee: the provost, the athletic director, three associate athletic directors, the vice president for student affairs and the student body president.
The Intercollegiate Athletic Committee began a biennial review in 1998 aimed at making sure athletes are getting the academic help and support they need.
In the report, the committee matches up incoming freshman student-athletes with non-athletes in the student population who have the same grade-point average and test score. The committee tracks the progress of both students throughout the student-athletes' college career to make sure they are "keeping up."
But in an analysis of all student-athletes in 2000-2001, there were 91 student-athletes - most of them in football or track - whose entering academic credentials were so low there were no non-athletes with whom to match them. That was a higher number than in the 1998 report, when matches could not be found for 45 student-athletes.
The unmatchable students were tracked separately by the committee, which found that those students tend to have lower grade-point averages than the matched athletes, but manage to "keep up" in the number of credit-hours completed.
Three student-athletes in the 2000-2001 report - presumably they were "provost's exceptions" - were admitted despite the fact that UF's own formula predicted they would get below a 1.6 grade-point average in their first year. Adding the .4 of a grade point that the Office of Student Life's academic support is thought to contribute still doesn't get them to a 2.0.
After one semester, six of the student-athletes admitted in 2000 had grade-point averages of 2.0 and eight had grade-point averages lower than 2.0.
The least academically qualified student listed in the report was admitted in 1996 on a football scholarship with a predicted grade-point average of 1.34. As of December, 2000, he had a 2.08 GPA and had completed 119 hours toward a degree in recreation.
The rising number of unmatchable students was troubling to professors Dovie Gamble and Andy McCullough, authors of the biennial Academic Progress Review report.
"The predictive indexes for these student-athletes would forecast that academic progress would be more difficult to maintain for these students," they wrote. "In fact, the data supports that concern.
"In general, these student-athletes did not appear to be as successful in the classroom and the evidence would suggest progress should be termed adequate rather than satisfactory."
Kolb, UF's admissions director, said the larger the disparity between the average student and the average student-athlete, the harder is it for the Office of Student Life to make up the difference.
"If the average predictive index is going to go down," said McCullough director of the Business Ethics Education and Research Center, "the amount of support we provide to these kids has got to increase."
Carrie Miller can be reached at 338-3103 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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