Commentaries
The Biggest Lesson from the UNC Academic Scandal Has Been Ignored

By Jesse Saffron and Jenna A. Robinson

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December 14, 2015

For several years, North Carolina higher education news has been dominated by a massive scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The most comprehensive account to date, based on an investigation conducted by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, revealed that for nearly two decades, systemic academic and athletics fraud had corrupted one of the most prestigious public universities in America.

The scandal not only brought shame to the state’s flagship university, but it also forced the school chancellor, a head coach, several department heads, and others out of their jobs. In an 18-year span (1993–2011), more than 3,100 UNC-CH athletes and non-athletes took “no-show” classes and received good grades for shoddy—and often plagiarized—papers. Some faculty, administrators, and academic support specialists participated in the scam, which among other things allowed 329 athletes to keep their eligibility. Other officials were aware of this wrongdoing, but opted to remain silent.

Following such revelations, university leaders in Chapel Hill and the system pledged to right those wrongs and usher-in a new era of accountability and integrity. 

Unfortunately, it appears that no such “golden age” will materialize. A new report on the state’s intercollegiate athletics programs produced by the UNC system’s general administration shows that the hardest lesson from the largest academic scandal in NCAA history is being ignored. Athletes with weak academic skills continue to be admitted to universities where they have little chance of successfully completing rigorous coursework.

In fact, universities seem to be going in the wrong direction.

In the 2012-13 academic year, 23 athletes in the UNC system received admissions standards exceptions, meaning they failed to meet system-wide minimum admissions requirements (800 combined math and reading SAT scores and 2.5 high school GPA). Another 22 received course requirement exceptions, meaning they failed to complete college-track language, math, and science courses in high school.

In the wake of a protracted scandal defined by its academic impropriety and low standards, one would expect such exceptions to end or at least decline. Instead, the system’s latest athletics report shows that 49 recruited athletes were admitted to UNC institutions with admissions standards exceptions in 2014-15. And 32 athletes were admitted despite their not meeting minimum course requirements. Over 25 percent of the minimum admissions requirement exceptions were made by UNC-CH and NC State University—schools with the most celebrated athletics programs in the state system.

While those exceptions are cause for concern, some of the academic profiles of students who do meet systemwide admissions standards are equally alarming. For example, the report indicates that for the 2014-15 year, the average SAT of football players at UNC-CH was 982, while their average high school core course GPA was 3.29. This is a decline from the 2012-13 academic year, in which those averages were 1060 and 3.43, respectively.

East Carolina University—which competes in Division IA, the top tier of college athletics—also has experienced serious declines. In the past two years, entering ECU football players’ average GPA fell from 3.1 to 2.8, and SAT scores dipped from 946 to 897. At other schools in the UNC system, there has been a mix of backsliding and improvement. At NC State, for instance, basketball players’ average GPA fell from 3.14 in 2012-13 to 2.87 in 2014-15, but their average SAT score rose from 780 to 930. (One wonders, however, whether that increase resulted from just one or two good students.)

To understand the severity of these athletes’ academic ill-preparation, it helps to compare their SAT scores and high school GPAs to those of the general student body, which are often much more competitive, and to the standards recommended by the College Board that creates and administers the SAT. For if an athlete is not ready to compete academically at a particular university, he or she will not—and, in fact, should not—perform well if that institution is maintaining high academic standards.

A 2010 report produced by the College Board found that, to be “college ready,” or to have “at least a 65 percent probability of obtaining a B- (or 2.67 or higher first year grade point average),” a student needs to score a combined 1030 on the math and verbal portions of the SAT and have a 3.33 high school GPA—a “B” average—after completing courses of average difficulty.

In the 2014-15 year, the average SAT score for non-athletes in the UNC system was 1105. For football players, it was 902. And the gap in educational preparedness is even more acute at the system’s top-tier schools. At UNC-CH, where non-athletes’ average SAT score is 1308 and average high school GPA is 4.63, the football players’ average SAT score of 982 and average GPA of 3.29 seem to pale in comparison. This raises the question of whether those players can successfully complete one semester, much less four years of high-level coursework.

“How, if you throw in another 20 or 30 hours per week of football practice, can someone with a 982 make it through school?” asked UNC system Board of Governors member Marty Kotis at last week’s Educational Planning, Policies, and Programs committee meeting, at which the athletics report was a topic of discussion. 

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Chancellor, Carol Folt, responded with a standard but fallacious explanation: “I think if you look at SATs, you are probably looking at something that is not a very good predictor, so we’ve started looking at GPAs more. SATs are notoriously biased against certain students. [Every] student in all of our institutions tends to have an individualized advising program—that is where we have to start looking.” 

Folt’s comment about the lack of predictive ability of SAT scores is refuted by mounting empirical evidence. As just one example, a recent study of 150,000 students from 110 colleges—summarized in this Slate article by psychology professors David Z. Hambrick and Christopher Chabris—found that SAT and high school GPA are on par in terms of their ability to predict first-year college GPA. But the best prediction, the authors of the study concluded, is obtained by using both SAT and GPA. 

Furthermore, SAT scores and GPAs tend to be strongly correlated. In most cases in the UNC athletics report, when GPA falls significantly, SAT scores fall and vice versa.

And when we consider the problem of grade inflation at the high school level, and the fact that almost all Chapel Hill applicants have high GPAs, the need for some objective measure of student ability becomes clear. 

The notion implied in Folt’s comments, that increased hand-holding via academic counseling or other interventions will ameliorate “student-athletes’” academic shortcomings, is also highly debatable. When athletes are only able to navigate their way through coursework by being coddled by advisors, professors, and administrators, it becomes necessary to ask whether the purpose is education or eligibility. Too often, the real answer is that such programs are intended to keep top athletes eligible at all costs, even if they can’t do the work. An institution that knowingly participates in such chicanery loses its claims to having academic integrity.

To be fair, UNC-CH and other universities deserve some credit for implementing policies designed to reduce the likelihood of a second scandal. For instance, UNC schools now conduct “course cluster” analysis to determine if too many athletes are flocking into easy classes or independent studies.

Also, in 2014-15, every UNC school satisfied the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate standards—something that hadn’t happened in five years. (Of course, that may merely mean they have better learned to “game” the system.) 

Still, the latest data from the UNC system suggest that higher education leaders in North Carolina refuse to accept the primary cause of the academic fraud scandal: the recruitment of students valued more for their abilities on the field than for their abilities in the classroom. Almost all of the corruption that we’ve witnessed at UNC in recent years has stemmed from just such recruitment.

On the surface, 2015 has been a good year for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the summer, officials announced that in the previous fiscal year, which ended June 30, the school had raked-in a record $447 million in donations.

And on December 5, its football team almost beat number one-ranked Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. Despite that loss, coach Larry Fedora, who recently signed a 7-year, $13.7 million contract extension, could take credit for leading UNC to its first 12-win season if it defeats Baylor University in the Russell Athletic Bowl later this month. 

So long as the donations keep flowing and the sports wins keep piling up, it’s far-fetched to expect North Carolina’s public universities to adequately police themselves. That’s why, if universities continue to abdicate their responsibilities, the system’s Board of Governors must get involved. At the very least, it can end universities’ practice of admitting students whose SAT scores and GPAs fall below the system-wide minimum admissions standards.

Intercollegiate Athletics Report 2

 


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