The stereotype of a “dumb jock” in college historically has been persistent, but as the academic requirements for student-athletes to be admitted to schools continue to rise, and the NCAA’s Academic Performance Rate (APR) puts pressure on schools to graduate those athletes, that stereotype has become all but a thing of the past.
As student-athletes at the University of South Carolina, Clemson University, and the University of Georgia strive to win championships in their respective conferences, the schools they represent are remaking themselves in order to compete at some of the highest levels academically as well. To produce a higher caliber graduate, the schools have increased their admissions standards. One example of how much admissions standards have risen in a generation is that students who were admitted as honor students in the 1970s in these schools would struggle to even be admitted to those same schools today. Students who receive athletic scholarships are subject to the same higher admissions standards as all other students.
Officials from Clemson and Georgia said their schools do not have a set number of “special admits” set aside each year for athletes who fail to meet those admissions standards, but said those prospective student-athletes who have challenges in meeting the standard admissions requirements have their applications and transcripts reviewed by a special committee.
Becky Bowman is the Associate Athletic Director for Academic Services at Clemson. She said of the subject, “We don’t have “set aside” special admits for athletics. Our Director of Admissions reviews all scholarship student-athlete applications, and if he sees red flags, if he sees things that make him wonder about their ability to earn a Clemson degree, he will refer them to the Clemson athletic admissions review committee.”
That committee at Clemson is made up of five voting members: three faculty members, the associate registrar, and Bowman. Bowman said the committee reviews the student’s credentials, and then makes a recommendation to the Director of Admissions as to the admissibility of that student-athlete. “We do that so we can align ourselves with the operating principles of the athletic certification program that says the university only admits those students who have a likely chance to earn a degree.” After review, the committee passes back its recommendations to the school Admissions Director.
Glada Horvat is the Assistant Athletic Director for Academics and Eligibility at the University of Georgia. In referencing their special admits, she said, “We don’t have any numbers, or quotas, or anything like that. Admissions evaluates them, and those who are deemed necessary (those not having met the standard criteria for admission) go to committee. Any student that our admissions process deems to go through the Admissions Committee will go through that process. If they go through the Admissions Committee, they end up going through the President.”
At the University of South Carolina, those who have not met all the regular admissions requirements may be admitted to USC as a “Special Admit.” USC Senior Associate Athletic Director Val Sheley said, "When (Athletic Director) Eric (Hyman) first came in here, he could not believe how good the academic credentials were of our Special Admits. ‘These are Special Admits?' he asked, and I explained to him that they're not at-risk kids. He said, 'That's crazy - these kids should not be Special Admits.' So from that day, we started looking into the whole process, which was pretty cumbersome. He championed it the whole time. Eric does things very thoughtfully, thoroughly and transparently."
The University President is permitted to award 100 special admits each year, of which 55 are allocated to the Athletic Department. These special admits are awarded to exceptionally gifted students in areas such as the arts and music, as well as athletics. Of the 55 special admits allocated to athletes, 25 are assigned to football. Sheley says that football is the economic engine that drives the athletic department. Twenty-five is the same number of athletes that the NCAA rules allow a Division I Football Bowl Subdivision institution to award athletics financial aid for the first time each year. Sheley says they have never used all of them, and that they always have several student-athletes who are regular admits. Those that are not used are then reassigned by the Athletic Director, Eric Hyman to the coaches of other sports who need them.
USC Head football coach Steve Spurrier's first three recruiting classes included 63 Special Admits, which is 84% of the players admitted, according to figures supplied by the University. The 2005-06 class had 23 Special Admits, the 2006-07 class had 22, and the 2007-08 had 18.
Spurrier’s fourth recruiting class for the Gamecocks signed their letters-of-intent last month, and most are just beginning the admissions process, so how many will need a special admit this year is yet to be determined.
Why a student needs to be Special Admit may have little to do with how good a student they are, Sheley says. “The definition of a Special Admit is anybody who doesn’t meet all the regular USC admissions requirements. You can have a kid with 1300 SAT and a 3.5 GPA, and he’s missing 2 or more of the required 19 core courses – he would be a Special Admit. So the term ‘Special Admit’ is really misleading. It should be ‘Exception Admit’ because it’s an exception to the regular admissions requirements. The term 'Special Admit' infers that the student is potentially academically at risk, and in our experience that may simply not be true."
Both Bowman and Horvat agreed with Sheley, and stated that many of the cases that have to be reviewed at Clemson and Georgia respectively are not necessarily “at-risk” students.
The rising admissions standards at the college level also places pressure on high school teachers and guidance counselors to help their students prepare for college. One thing that causes many students to be placed in the category of Special Admit is that they lack required courses at the high school level. Those standards vary from state to state, and from university to university. “As previously stated, USC requires 19 core courses including a lab science, along with the core GPA and test scores,” Sheley said. "The NCAA required 14, with 16 for the student-athletes initially enrolling in the fall 2008. Now if you’re a South Carolina high school graduate you should have the lab science because it is required for graduation. But many of our out-of-state and foreign kids don’t have it, because it’s not required for graduation. So now they’re a Special Admit.”
South Carolina has recently changed their student-athlete admissions process. USC coaches were having difficulty getting students admitted at times, yet those same students were reportedly able to be admitted to Clemson, Georgia, and other schools. When asked to compare the admissions process at USC and Clemson, Sheley said, “I really can’t because I have not compared the two in detail. From what I can see in the press, they may have been able to get kids in that we can’t get in, even though their regular admissions standards appear to be higher than ours. But again, that’s at the individual institution's discretion how they go about making exceptions. That’s the same for every institution; I guarantee that every school does bring in exceptions.”
One of the changes at USC will be differentiating between an at-risk student and a student who is simply lacking a class or other basic admissions requirement. “We struggle with that term, ‘Special Admit,’” Sheley said, “because a lot of our kids shouldn’t be wearing the Special Admit label.”
Under USC’s new process, the ones that are considered at-risk will now be “Contract Admits.” Sheley said, “They’ll be counted as one of our Special Admits, but they will be under an academic contract with very strict requirements and they will be very low in number, I can assure you. This will be the first class in the fall of 2008 under the new process. They’ll be the ones that don’t meet the 3 of 5 rule and they’ll be under very strict supervision.” The 3 of 5 rule states that students have to meet three-of-five specific requirements such as test scores, sub-test scores, class rank, and GPA in order to be admitted as a Special Admit. The Contract Admits will be reviewed by a University committee to determine if they are admissible and can successful at South Carolina.
USC Athletic Director Eric Hyman also talked about the new system. “If a person is very marginal academically, there are stricter guidelines. Those stricter guidelines are called a Contract Admit. That athlete needs close guidance and monitoring; they need to have better focus.”
“The coaches are assigned a number of special admits each year," said Sheley. "That number isn’t carved in stone, because from one year to the next, they may have a bigger recruiting class, but it is a guide for them. Some coaches don’t need to use them and they are assigned to a sport that does need them. They go back into the pool and Eric can reassign them. For instance, softball this year will lose seven seniors, so they’ll be recruiting a large class and they may need more special admits than assigned. So it gives us some flexibility."
At Clemson, Georgia, and South Carolina, the methods of getting the student-athletes in school may vary, but the objectives are the same – to produce winners on the field and in the classroom. How successful they are in getting those athletes into their respective schools has a direct impact on how successful they are against each other on the playing field.