Academic scores lag at Division I colleges
For the freshman class at Georgia Tech, the average SAT is a record-shattering 1445. It's an eye-popping figure that underscores Tech's standing as one of the nation's most elite public schools.
But look at Tech's football team and a different picture emerges. For incoming football players, the average SAT is 420 points below the class as a whole, according to an analysis of school data obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"We are disappointed every time a young man does not succeed. … Once our students learn solid habits and study skills, they perform much higher than academic predictors. A countless number of our players have had drastic life changes for the better because of their opportunity to have the structure and environment we provide."
MARK RICHT, University of Georgia football coach
Tech isn't alone. At Georgia's other top-tier Division I college football programs — the University of Georgia, Georgia State University and Georgia Southern University — the admission scores of football players also lag significantly behind those of other freshmen, the AJC found.
As these schools have become increasingly competitive for regular high school students, the data shows they are still willing to make exceptions to recruit football players, most of whom also get full scholarships.
What is a special admit?
The University System of Georgia sets minimum benchmarks for admission to its campuses.
The standard uses a freshman index, which is a formula that takes into account grade point average and either SAT or ACT test results. The minimum SAT score for admission to a four-year university is 430 Critical Reading and 400 Math — or 830 combined.
Students with SAT scores below that threshold may be considered as a category of special admit referred to as a presidential exception. Schools have caps on the number of such special admits they may accept in a given year.
Other findings from the last six years of data:
• Since 2009, the four schools have enrolled more than 230 players who failed to meet the bare-bones academic requirements laid out by the University System of Georgia. These so-called special admits often require intensive academic assistance when they arrive on campus. At Tech, for instance, six full-time academic coordinators are on staff to shepherd football players through their studies.
• SAT scores and high school grade point averages for football players trail well behind those of regular students. That's especially true at Tech and UGA, where data shows football players entering the schools have recorded SAT scores that are hundreds of points lower than regular freshmen.
• Depending on the year, as many as 100 percent of football players have SAT scores in the bottom quarter of their freshman class at Tech. At the University of Georgia, roughly eight of 10 football players are in the bottom quarter.
• There were a handful of extremely low scores. Georgia Tech admitted one player with a Math-Verbal combined SAT of 590, and UGA, 570. A score of 400 is the lowest possible on the SAT. Among college-bound seniors in 2014, just 2 percent of all SAT test takers nationally scored 600 or below, according to the College Board.
Colleges point to rising graduation rates as evidence that football players are succeeding at school but don't keep detailed data on what players do with their degrees after they graduate.
The tension between academic integrity and collegiate football is a contentious issue nationally. Schools in other states also routinely admit players with weak grades to build powerhouse football programs.
In the early 1980s, Jan Kemp, a remedial English teacher at the University of Georgia, accused school officials of intervening to help nine UGA football players receive passing grades to remain eligible for the Sugar Bowl. The bombshell trial that resulted after Kemp was fired laid bare embarrassing details about the preferential treatment of academically unprepared athletes. Kemp won a $2.5 million judgment, later reduced on appeal. UGA's president resigned. And the debacle set the stage for national academic standards for athletes and reporting requirements for colleges.
The debate over standards continues with revelations of a massive, decades-long cheating scandal at the University of North Carolina, involving about 3,100 students — nearly half of them athletes. Last week, the school announced that at least nine employees had been fired or were under disciplinary review after revelations of bogus classes and artificial grades.
The NCAA is set to require higher grade point averages for eligibility in 2016. And a labor relations ruling earlier this year, saying football players at Northwestern University are employees and should be able to unionize, has sparked a new debate about the role of student athletes.
College sports' governing body has consistently argued that its players are, in fact, students first. That position is central to the NCAA's defense of its unchecked power to not pay athletes and suspend them for violating academic standards and drug policies.
"I was told by my (high school) academic counselor, 'Whatever you do, don't go to Tech. You won't survive there.' The key is, can a young man be remediated and brought up to speed and compete with those incredible students sitting on either side of them?"
BILL CURRY, former Georgia Tech football coach (later Ga. State coach)
There is no mystery why colleges are willing to soften academic standards for a tiny minority of the student body: money.
College football is big business: $77 million last year at the University of Georgia, according to the school's filing with the NCAA. And there are more intangible benefits. The excitement surrounding a winning season can mean luster for a school's national image and translate into a jump in applications.
But academics can prove problematic for schools and athletes alike. To win, universities sometimes wager on promising players with marginal academic records. Sometimes the bet pays off. But occasionally a school uses a "free pass" on a player who doesn't make the grade.
Such was the case for UGA's Caleb King, the state's hottest running back prospect in high school, who flamed out of college ball when he was ruled academically ineligible his senior season in 2011. Travis Custis was supposed to be a freshman standout for Tech this year. Instead, the talented back is playing at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas after running into his own eligibility issues.
A question of fairness
For a high school student who has worked for top grades to earn admission to their dream school, it can be agonizing to see athletes with mediocre grades win a spot they could not.
Daniel Hawker notched a 1370 SAT and a 3.7 GPA, while taking five AP classes at Chattahoochee High School in Alpharetta.
The would-be environmental engineer was rejected at Tech — his first choice — and wait listed at UGA, his second pick.
"It bothers me that some students are given exceptions from the rules everyone else has to meet because they can throw a football," Hawker said. "It's good that they can play a sport, but it doesn't seem right to me that they are given a bypass around what everyone else needs to meet."
Hawker, who's been taking classes at Georgia Perimeter College, recently received good news: he's been plucked from the UGA wait list and will matriculate in January. But he wonders about the messages the schools are sending.
"Even if it does help the school provide a better experience as a whole, it seems like they're putting education in the passenger seat to football and sports."
Paul Krohn, vice provost of enrollment at Georgia Tech, said it's simplistic to portray admissions as a ranking of test scores. Lots of factors come into play, he explained.
"We want a diverse student body," Krohn said. "If we were only taking students with the best scores then the entire freshmen class would be Chinese nationals."
"I don't want a campus of clones."
Carla Williams, executive associate athletics director at UGA — where test scores of entering freshmen have been steadily rising — also said the school looks at the whole student.
"Test scores aren't necessarily a direct reflection of intelligence," she said.
Still, that doesn't stop colleges from establishing test benchmarks for non-athletes, who pile on Advanced Placement courses and fret if their grade point average drops a shade below perfection.
Michelle Weiberg, a guidance counselor at Pinecrest Academy in Cumming, notes that most colleges send averages of the prior academic class as a measuring stick for applicants.
For 2014, UGA freshman averaged between four to eight AP classes and between a 28 to 32 ACT score out of a possible 36, according to the fact sheet provided by Weiberg.
Georgia Tech's incoming 2013 class took six to 11 APs and averaged a 30 to 33 ACT score.
"The parents, especially the former graduates, get surprised by how difficult it is to get in," Weiberg said.
* The University of Georgia did not provide yearly data for any measures, but instead reported weighted averages for the six-year period of 2009-2014. The graduation rate is generated differently and does not represent a weighted average.
"Coaches don't like to hear no"
The college recruiting process is a complicated dance governed by rigid NCAA rules that determine anything from when a player may visit a college to how many texts a coach can send recruits. In 2011, UGA head coach Mark Richt received a one-week ban from dialing recruits after he called back an anonymous number that turned out to be prospective wide receiver C.J. Curry of Gainesville.
Recruiters have their eye on prospects from early on in their high school careers and many Georgia high schools have guidance counselors well versed in the intricacies of NCAA eligibility.
David Frank, of Athnet, a consulting company that helps student athletes with college admissions, said that every year a coach has a set number of academically-challenged recruits they can back. A coach gets behind a few key picks. He or the athletic director make the case to admissions officials, who must make the call.
"It depends on the school and the quality of the player, how hard they are going to push and how low they are willing to lower the academic bar," Frank said.
Georgia State University accepted 23 so-called special admits, students who don't meet the university system's minimum academic standards, when it launched its football program in 2009, records show. But Timothy Renick, Vice Provost at the school, said the decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
"We want to make a fair decision for the student led by whether the student has a good prospect for succeeding," Renick said.
Teresa Thompson, vice president at Georgia Southern, who handled admissions for years, acknowledged the process "can get tense."
"Coaches don't like to hear no," she said.
"What you hear is, 'Oh, you just don't know. This kid is so motivated and that motivation is going to get them through,'" Thompson continued.
She said current coach Willie Fritz brings the admission staff solid prospects but that's not always been the case.
"I think one of the worst things in the world you can ever do is set a kid up for failure. It ruins their self confidence and self esteem," Thompson said.
"Yeah, people kind of look at us as dumb jocks but a lot of us are more than that. A lot of us wouldn't be here if it weren't for football and yeah, I'm one of them."
MICHAEL BENNETT, University of Georgia wide receiver and fifth-year senior
Even players who do make the admissions cut sometimes have to cope with stereotypes once they arrive on campus.
"I mean you can definitely tell teachers look at you as an athlete, like 'Oh they're going to cheat' or 'They're going to get someone to do their work,' " said Michael Bennett, a wide receiver and fifth-year senior from Alpharetta at UGA. "You definitely get that vibe from some teachers, but then some love you."
While Bennett may not have had top grades to gain admission, he's kept a 3.1 GPA at UGA.
"Yeah, people kind of look at us as dumb jocks but a lot of us are more than that. A lot of us wouldn't be here if it weren't for football and yeah, I'm one of them."
One notable Georgia Tech football alum is particularly well-versed on the subject of special-admits — after all, he was one.
"I was told by my (high school) academic counselor, 'Whatever you do, don't go to Tech. You won't survive there,'" said Bill Curry, who went on to star at center, graduated from Tech in 1965 and was head coach of the football team there in the 1980s.
"The key is, can a young man be remediated and brought up to speed and compete with those incredible students sitting on either side of them?"
Colleges invariably point to graduation rates to show they've made strides educating student athletes. But while those rates have improved, football players still trail the overall student body. And, depending on the data you consider, the gap remains fairly wide.
Data collected by the NCAA shows that the overall graduation rate for UGA is 82 percent while for football players it was 70 percent. At Tech, all students graduated at a rate of 79 percent while for football players it was 53 percent. Those figures comprise an average over four years and allow students six years to complete their degrees. (The NCAA calculates a separate — rosier — graduation success rate for athletes that eliminates many transfer students.)
Part of improvement in graduation rates has come from the small army of advisers, guidance counselors and tutors who work with student athletes and keep them on track academically. UGA now pours $2.2 million a year into academic support for the school's athletes, up from $800,000 a decade ago and $200,000 from the early 1980s when the Jan Kemp scandal broke. The money comes from the athletic budget.
While at the University of Iowa, Billy Hawkins was a retention coordinator, which meant he spent day after day with special-admit students who needed help.
"They were challenged when you talk about reading at the college level," said Hawkins, now a UGA professor who specializes in racial and societal issues surrounding the NCAA student-athlete model.
Hawkins has a somewhat radical idea for college football: bench special admits who are on the fence academically for their freshman season, "so they can get a year of academic work under their belt."
"I think it's somewhat easy to graduate a student, but whether they are well educated once they receive a degree — I mean, able to function and get into a field that is closely related to their degree program," he said.
The improvement in graduation rates may also come from steering athletes to a few majors, so-called class clustering. An extreme example of clustering occurred in 2011 at the University of North Carolina, where football players were steered toward the African and Afro-American Studies Department, which was shown to have watered-down curriculum to keep athletes eligible.
At Georgia Tech, 67 percent of the team's current football players with a declared major chose business administration, though Krohn said there was no intentional guidance from the college toward the major. The entire business school only accounts for about 9 percent of the overall student body.
"I think one of the worst things in the world you can ever do is set a kid up for failure. It ruins their self confidence and self esteem."
TERESA THOMPSON, vice president at Georgia Southern University
"Mostly they tend to gravitate toward the majors that are familiar," said Krohn, who noted that incoming freshmen can be confused by majors with obscure names such as "History, Technology and Society" or "Literature, Media and Communication."
The most popular majors for UGA football players are Pre-Business (23 percent), Communication Studies (12.5 percent) and Sociology (8 percent).
Krohn said certain types of majors are hard to pair with amateur athletics.
"Majors that have lots of labs are difficult for the athletes to balance with their training and travel schedules," Krohn said.
But with a schedule packed with practices, conditioning workouts and week-day travel for away games, players sometimes find keeping balanced is easier said than done.
"To ask an athlete, who is striving to be an elite athlete, to have balance?" Richard Southall, Director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, said. "Come on! That goes against every ethos an athlete is raised to follow."
Tanya Sichynsky contributed to this article. Charts by Pete Corson. Presentation by Pete Corson and Ashlyn Still.
How We Got The Story
With the NCAA moving to tighten some academic requirements for athletes, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution decided to examine how the scores of Georgia's Division I football programs stacked up.
The AJC filed multiple open records requests with the University of Georgia, Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia Southern University and Georgia State University seeking admission test scores and high school GPA's for football players as well as the general student population. The AJC also obtained the number of so-called special admits, football players who are admitted even though they lack the minimum test scores set by the University System of Georgia.
UGA at first declined to provide the number of special admits, citing the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). They eventually provided the statistics after the other Georgia schools provided their own data. UGA also declined to break down the admissions scores of their football players down by year, as the three other schools had done. They again cited FERPA. That prevented the AJC from doing a year-by-year comparison with UGA football recruits, as it did with the other schools. Instead, UGA provided aggregate football score data for the six-year period examined by the AJC. They then gave the newspaper weighted averages for the overall student body for the same time period for comparison.
The AJC focused on football for two reasons. One, it is the top moneymaking sport at the Georgia schools. Secondly, with 100 or so players, the football teams are large enough that schools were able to provide scores without intruding on student privacy.