During my eight years as admissions director at UNC-Chapel Hill, I have worked closely with the faculty of the university to develop and implement guidelines for the admission of student-athletes. I hope the following description will help readers understand what we do, how we do it, and why.
In a typical year, our first-year class of 3,950 students includes young men and women from every part of North Carolina, almost every state in the union, and more than 25 countries. These students include budding leaders, scientists, poets, mathematicians, entrepreneurs, artists and journalists. They include young men and women who have enjoyed almost every possible advantage – stable homes, steady incomes, strong schools – as well as those who have endured great poverty and deprivation. They also include students who have worked extraordinarily hard to develop their talent in a particular area – drama, music, and yes, athletics.
Some of these students are so well-prepared that they will sail through Carolina, and would sail through any university, without seeming to break their stride. Others will struggle mightily but will ultimately succeed, earning their degrees and transforming their lives.
In my experience, it is relatively easy to pick the former but much harder to pick the latter. Yet the difficult choices are worth making, because talented students who have the grit to triumph despite tough circumstances have much to teach their classmates and all of us.
A small share of these choices – an average of 20 students each year since 2005 – involve prospective student-athletes. In making these decisions, the admissions office relies heavily on the Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and specifically on its Subcommittee on Special Talent.
This group is charged with assessing whether exceptionally talented candidates have the capacity and the will to succeed academically at UNC, and to do so in a way that they and we can be proud of. The subcommittee considers these students carefully, taking into account not only their academic record but also the whole of their circumstances. When the subcommittee declines to recommend a student, the student is not admitted.
When students are recommended and admitted, we know that they will have to strive to succeed academically on our campus, and to do so in the glare of a media spotlight that most of us would find withering. But many of these students come to us having already overcome great obstacles. And we believe, based on what we know about them, that they have earned their place and
deserve our support and respect.
Not all of the students we have admitted in this way have succeeded. Some were unable, despite their best efforts, to pass their courses and earn their degrees. Others decided to postpone formal education so that they could earn their living playing professionally. Still others behaved in ways that they and we regret.
But most of these students have either graduated or made progress towards their degrees, and they have done so by working incredibly hard – perhaps harder than most of us will ever work at anything in our lives. These students, in my view, deserve to be celebrated, not disparaged as “exceptions” or stigmatized by the poor choices of others.
We have always done our best to learn from both groups of students – from those who have succeeded and those who have not. We are doing so now. The refinements in athletics admissions that are under review now are the product of a constructive campus dialogue. We believe these changes will help us get better.
But we also believe there should continue to be a place at UNC for students whose talent and determination to overcome obstacles can inspire us all. And apparently we are not alone in this belief.
Of the 53 football players recommended for admission by the faculty committee over the last five years, more than half were offered scholarships by top-30 public or private universities. Three-fourths were offered scholarships by one of these schools or by other public universities in North Carolina.
We will always work hard to improve. But we stand behind these students and the integrity of the process that led them to join us.
Stephen M. Farmer is vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill.