Academic performance of athletes lags in UNC system

jstancill@newsobserver.comJanuary 8, 2014 

UNC and NC State battle in the 2010 rivalry game in Kenan Stadium. As scrutiny mounts about college sports enterprises, UNC system campuses show a mixed bag of success and embarrassment in the academic performance of athletes, according to the latest statistics. This week, the UNC Board of Governors will review the annual report on intercollegiate athletics at the 15 university campuses with athletic programs.

ROBERT WILLETT — 2010 News & Observer file photo

  • GPAs and SATs for freshman football players

    Here are the average high school grade point averages (in NCAA-defined core courses) and average SAT scores of recruited freshman football players at area universities for the 2012-13 school year. The average SAT score for all entering freshmen in 2012 was 1058 at ECU, 866 at NCCU, 1223 at NCSU and 1305 at UNC-CH.

    UniversityGPASAT
    East Carolina3.10946
    N.C. Central2.65883
    N.C. State3.14961
    UNC-Chapel Hill3.431,060

As scrutiny mounts about college sports enterprises, UNC system campuses show a mixed bag of success and embarrassment in the academic performance of athletes, according to the latest statistics.

This week, the UNC Board of Governors will review the annual report on intercollegiate athletics at the 15 university campuses with athletic programs.

Though some sports programs graduate virtually all of their players, others struggle to get half of their athletes to finish within six years. In the revenue sports of football and basketball, the average SAT scores of incoming recruits are woefully below those of the student body as a whole.

And as the NCAA ratchets up minimum academic progress requirements next year, more programs may face penalties when athletes fail to make the grade or earn a degree.

Among the findings in the report:

• Seven UNC system campuses performed as well as their peer institutions overall, though only three campuses matched or exceeded peers in their athletic conferences.

• N.C. A&T was the only campus penalized by the NCAA for its “Academic Progress Rate” in two sports, compared to three schools with problems in five sports last year. But the report warned that 17 programs at five campuses are at risk for falling below the NCAA’s new Academic Progress Rate standard that will take effect next fall.

• Twenty-two recruited athletes were admitted as exceptions to minimum course requirements at the state universities in 2012, but the share of admissions exceptions that are athletes has dropped since 2010.

• Twelve of 15 campuses committed NCAA violations, including impermissible letters, text messages and phone calls to recruits, and impermissible benefits to players. Most rule violations were minor.

• The most popular majors of athletes were business, communications and journalism, and parks, recreation or fitness studies.

Graduation rates varied widely across individual sports programs at the universities.

In UNC-CH’s football program, plagued by scandal in recent years, a little more than half of players graduated within six years. The rate climbed to 65 percent in the NCAA’s more forgiving measure, the “Graduation Success Rate,” which doesn’t count the departure of players who leave early while still in good academic standing. Among all UNC-CH students, the six-year graduation rate is 89 percent.

The results were similar at NCSU and East Carolina, where 57 percent finished in six years. (64 percent at NCSU and 66 percent at ECU, when using the Graduation Success Rate). The graduation rate for all students is 71 percent at NCSU and 58 percent at ECU.

In men’s basketball, 60 percent of players finished within six years at UNC-CH (90 percent in the GSR measure), compared to 64 percent at NCSU (89 percent in the GSR calculation).

Women’s soccer at UNC

The rates were worse for NCSU’s tennis and wrestling programs. And UNC-CH’s vaunted women’s soccer program, with 22 national championships, has a six-year graduation rate of 69 percent.

Coach Anson Dorrance said he’s trying to encourage his players to attend summer school and finish their degrees early, before they take off on their professional soccer journeys.

He provided a list of academic award winners on his team and said the graduation statistics are deceiving.

“Some of those people are actually academic All-Americans,” he said of low graduate numbers.

In recent years, more players have sought their fortunes in European and Australian professional leagues, which compete in the fall. That prevents players from returning to graduate within the six-year window, Dorrance said. Typically players had gone pro in the spring and returned in fall to complete their degree.

“It should be higher,” Dorrance said of the graduation rate. “I think we’ve got to do a better job with that.”

The report comes as UNC-CH campus leaders and UNC system leaders have instituted a batch of reforms aimed at preventing bogus independent studies and no-show classes that were uncovered in an academic fraud scandal in UNC-CH’s African and Afro-American Studies department.

A department manager and former chairman at the center of the scandal have left the university. News of the football and academic scandals continue to unfold, with indictments late last year of agents, a former tutor and the African studies former chairman, Julius Nyang’oro.

Some of the statistics paint a picture of athletes who come to campus ill-prepared to compete, with high school records and test scores inferior to those of their classmates. The average SAT score of first-year women’s basketball players at UNC-CH in 2012 was 870, compared to 1305 for the student body. At NCSU, the average SAT for men’s basketball players was 780, compared to 1223 for the student body.

‘A bit of fiction’

Board of Governors Chairman Peter Hans said his personal opinion is that something needs to change to alter what he called “a bit of fiction” that student athletes always fare well in competitive classrooms.

He’d like to see a way for struggling student athletes to be placed in classes more appropriate to their level of learning and preparation, say in community college courses that get them up to speed.

“To be both fair to that student and to be intellectually honest about the nexus between athletics and academics, I think that would be a positive step,” he said.

A number of board members have been troubled by the practice of admitting students who don’t meet minimum admission requirements, at a time when the system is increasing minimum standards, Hans said.

And, he said, so much expense is put toward tutoring and academic advising that regular students don’t have access to. “That bothers me, to be honest.”

In the coming weeks, the UNC system board is expected to require new rules about the disclosure of more financial data from campus athletic departments. An internal committee is working on ideas to present to UNC President Tom Ross later this month.

“We’re not clear that our board or the campus trustees are completely aware of what’s being spent on athletics,” he said. “Our board’s philosophy here is the more transparency, the better, because sunlight on this issue will lead to more public accountability and hopefully improvements.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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