Comparing the Acceptance Rates of Athletes to the General Public

Kentucky Wildcats forward Enes Kanter sits on the bench and watches his teammates. He was never allowed to play college ball. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-US PRESSWIRE

This is Part II of the series looking at the academics of student-athletes at Pac-12 institutions. If you missed Part I, you can click on it here. Today, we will examine the average SAT, GPA, and the use of Special Admits to Pac-12 universities. In Part III, we’ll examine what happens once those student-athletes arrive and see which universities are most successful at keeping these athletes eligible and ultimately graduating them through analysis of the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate (APR).

It is sort of a well known fact that universities generally “bend the rules” when it comes to student-athletes, particularly those in the major revenue sports like Football and Men’s Basketball. While getting hard evidence for this can be quite difficult, most people probably just assume that if a coach really wants a player, they will find their way into the university, no matter how exclusive or demanding the entrance requirements are for normal students.

Some universities are known for not making any exceptions to their high academic standings. Stanford for instance actually takes advantage of that by only recruiting athletes who would have already made it through the admissions process (or at least would have been competitive) without sports. Perhaps there is a little bit of rule bending, benefit of the doubt, or advantage to being a star recruit, but for the most part, the players who are on the field for Stanford were straight-A high school students with high SAT scores. Stanford is able to recruit nationally in a way few other schools can primarily because they have the advantage of having an Ivy League reputation while still playing in a BCS conference (and they actually offer scholarships). They have turned what could have been a major disadvantage into an asset and have been able to field BCS bowl football teams and make deep runs in the NCAA tournament in basketball. In addition, Stanford has more national championships than any other university in the country (102) except UCLA (108).

Interestingly, UC Berkeley (Cal to most of us) is also one of the best universities in the world and generally accepted as the best public university in the United States. Yet, they have not been able to sell their academics to recruits like Stanford has. Cal focuses recruiting much more intently on the west coast and seems to recruit the same type of student-athletes that most of the rest of the Pac-12 does. Thus, they are forced to downscale their academic requirements for athletes and use “special admit” procedures to get those players they do recruit onto campus. Despite lowering these expectations, they have not been able to be nearly as successful on the football field or in other sports as Stanford over the last few decades. In fact, when it comes to men’s basketball, one could argue it took hiring Stanford’s old coach, Mike Montgomery, to finally get a leg up on the court.

While some universities will allow any athlete who makes the NCAA’s bare minimum eligibility requirements in, there are some universities who do hold athletes to a higher standard, if not all the way up to the level of the general public. While evidence is difficult to find, the talk around Montlake for years is that Schmitz Hall does scrutinize the academic preparedness of potential recruits carefully and has told coaches of the various sports that they would not accept certain players. This may may result in the quiet backing off of recruiting certain players or players “changing their minds” when the message comes across.

The highest profile case in recent years was that of Charles Garcia. Lorenzo Romar really wanted Garcia to transfer from Riverside JC. But, despite gaining NCAA eligibility, admissions would not let him in because they determined that “he was not likely to be successful” in the academic setting. While this angered a lot of Husky fans, in the end it ended up being exactly the right call. Those on Seattle U’s campus almost immediately reported that Garcia was having trouble in classes and/or didn’t even show up for classes. In the end, he left the Redhawks after just one season and attempted to enter the NBA draft. But, after going undrafted, he has been toiling  in the D-league for the past two seasons, playing for three different teams, most recently the Sioux Falls Skyforce.

It is also rumored that Lorenzo Romar backed off his recruitment of Enes Kanter when he heard that Kanter had not yet received a passing score on his SAT tests. Whether Kanter ever did get that score was never released. Nonetheless, Kanter was permanently banned from playing college ball at Kentucky or anywhere else because of his professional status back in Turkey. Didn’t hurt him too much though as he now makes millions playing for the Utah Jazz. One of the rumors regarding why we’ve heard absolutely nothing about 2012 recruit William Howard, despite reports that it was UW coaches that “placed him” at the prep school in Maryland, is that he might not be able to get eligible.

Anyways, I was curious to see which universities have the biggest differential between their admittance policies of the general population and those of their student-athletes.  So, I surfed the web for some statistics on this. It is surprisingly hard to find or at least compile. I did find that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution looked at data collected by the NCAA for every BCS conference school and that gave me a start. But, because the data is compiled by the NCAA on a rotating basis, the data spans a decade of information. So, it is not a direct side-by-side same year comparison. But, it does give you a sense of how different universities stack up. I also gleened information for the U.S. News and World Reports college rankings.

One article I found indicated that in 2004, 95% of Cal’s football players were allowed in through the use of “special admits”. In fact, Cal and UCLA have the 2nd and 3rd worst differentials in the country between the academic status of the athletes they let in and those of the general student body. But, that makes sense doesn’t it? Cal and UCLA are two of the best public universities in the country (maybe THE two best). So, you would expect the difference between the highly competitive selection process of its student body and the non-competitive academic status of its athletes to be high. By the way, the winner for the largest differential is Florida.

Below you will see a chart showing the SAT scores and GPA’s of the overall male population, male athletes as a whole, football, and men’s basketball players for the 9 public universities in the Pac-12 for which data was available. As private universities, Stanford and USC are not required to divulge this information and do not do so. I was unable to find Utah’s information. One thing we can say based on their public statements is that Stanford makes virtually no exceptions. But, I think we are safe to assume that USC probably ends up being in a similar situation as Cal and UCLA, being a good academic institution that takes on a lot of academically marginal student-athletes.

Average SAT Scores Overall Male SAT Male Athlete SAT Men’s Bball  Football  *Ranking
Arizona 1145 990 1016 924 #30
Arizona State 1111 988 906 937 #46
California 1329 1078 948 967 #3
UCLA 1307 998 935 930 #2
Oregon 1121 993 N/A 953 #47
Oregon State 1110 1008 1009 997 #53
Washington 1206 1022 951 949 #23
Washington State 1058 966 1013 916 #45
Colorado 1152 951 943 966 #41
GPA and other data Overall Special Admit % Special Admit % athletes M Bball GPA Football GPA GPA overall % admitted
Arizona 4.6% 14.3% 2.56 2.70 3.40 80.5%
Arizona State N/A N/A 2.65 3.25 3.39 91.0%
California 2.0% 44.4% 3.06 2.85 3.92 23.2%
UCLA 2.6% 61.2% 3.00 3.07 3.91 49.0%
Oregon 2.7% 18.9% N/A 2.86 3.68 92.0%
Oregon State N/A N/A 2.87 2.99 3.50 96.0%
Washington 12.5% 23.1% 2.93 2.99 3.77 83.0%
Washington State 1.3% 14.1% 3.13 2.83 3.21 72.2%
Colorado N/A N/A 2.80 2.90 3.60 97.0%

*Ranking differential between football and overall population out of 54 public universities surveyed.

A Stanford Cardinal fan holds up a signagainst the Baylor Bears in the 2012 women's semi-finals.

Looking at the University of Washington, it appears they about where you would expect them to be based on the various academic rankings out there. They have the third highest average SAT score of the nine schools listed (behind Cal and UCLA) and the 2nd highest male athlete SAT scores. Most academic ranking services usually rank UW slightly behind Cal and UCLA, but ahead of virtually every other university in the western half of the country (other than Stanford of course). But, when you look at the SAT scores for football and basketball, its right in the middle of the list. That means, they are bending the rules quite a bit in the revenue sports.

When looking at “special admit” numbers, you can see that every university for which the data is available let’s in far more athletes under those procedures than the general population. For UCLA the number really stands out (61.1% to 2.6%). Cal is not far behind at 44%. Washington comes in a distant 3rd at 23%. But, again, that is to be expected given the relative difficulty for students in general to get into these institutions compared to other Pac-12 schools.

If we operate under the assumption that other than Stanford, all 11 other Pac-12 universities more-or-less let in any athletes who qualify by the NCAA standards, then their athletes all start at the same baseline and the differences between them and the general public will be based solely on how difficult it is for the general public to get into the university. Now, this is only a problem if gaining access to these top-notch academic institutions results in athletes who can not cut it in the classroom and end up either becoming academically ineligible or they do not ultimately end up graduating and earning their degree.

In Part III of this series, we’ll take a look at the APR to see whether this liberal use of the “special admit” procedures ends up costing a university when it comes to their APR scores and graduation rates.

Topics: Arizona, Arizona State, Cal, Colorado, GPA, Oregon, Oregon State, Pac-12, SAT, Special Admit, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Utah, Washington, Washington State

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  • Elliot Fein

    Good article.  Some day someone will need to design better criteria for evaluating high school students’ accademic ability than our practice of using GPA’s and SAT scores.  Is there grade inflation out there in many high schools today?  Anecdotal evidence as well as clear benefits in engaging in the practice by so many  suggests there is.  Can you teach towards the SAT test?  A billion dollar industry (Stanley Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc …) says you can. I used to get mad when I heard of preferential treatment given to student athletes in college admissions.  Because the criteria evaluating student accademic ability has become so dysfunctional, my feelings have softened.

  • Jeff Taylor

    As a high school teacher I can tell you that grade inflation is very real. When teachers are noted for failing too many students or giving too many students C’s and D’s, the parents come down on the teacher (more meetings, more stress) and the administrators. Administrators like to have these problems go away and will subtly tell teachers to assist with that.

    During my first year of teaching, I was called to the principal’s office because I had too many F’s at the end of the semester. When I asked if he was telling me to lower my standards, he huffed back “Oh no, you never lower your standards, you make adjustments”.

    Anyways, there is also the thing that happens at the end of every semester where every student within 1% of the next grade up will get it “rounded up”. The students whine and beg and plead for you round it up so a 89.1% becomes an A. But, there becomes a slippery slope, especially when they talk with each other and the next student with the 88.9% comes in and asks why so-and-so got an A, but now they get a B just 0.2% lower down.

  • Tim Ohlsen

    Nice article, but I would even assume that Stanford lowers their academic standards* for football players.  For example, my sister was offered admittance to both Harvard and Princeton as a basketball player, and would’ve had the highest SAT on Harvard’s team (near the top on Princeton), even though hers was in middle-lower quartile of average scores of all admits.  Obviously, even Harvard women’s basketball, which is far less of a money-maker then football, lowers the score requirements in exchange for good athletes.  
    The reasoning for lowering academic “standards”? Stanford wants students who are “the best” at whatever they do (and can contribute to the university with their talents), even if that means spending a lot of time on the gridiron rather than the classroom.  Even with regards to varsity football players, Stanford wants the best, which can lower their requirements to some extent.  I would certainly doubt that all Stanford football players scored the 1400+ SAT composite score required even for serious consideration.  Of course, I would expect them to score quite a bit higher than, say, Oregon.  Maybe in the 1100 range.  I’m with you, I wish they would release the stats.***for the sake of simplicity, I’ll equate the academic potential of a student to your model of SATs, GPA, etc.  I imagine it’s good enough since most schools use these things to choose students…

  • Jeff Taylor


    I will grant you that they may “bend” some of their rules. But, if you look at their football team, it was actually made up of dozens of players earning 3.5 or better GPA’s at Stanford and who are majoring in things like engineering, pre-med, etc.

    Andrew Luck had a 3.5 GPA. They are the go-to place for those athletes that are also stellar athletes who want a top notch university and don’t want to have to pay for it (aka Harvard).

  • Tim

    I wasn’t saying that Stanford athletes weren’t smart or that they cannot succeed at Stanford.  But as this was an article about entry requirements, I would contest the statement that most Stanford football players would gain admittance regardless of whether they played football, because few of them actually have SATs in the top 1%.

    As for Andrew Luck, I think we can both agree that he is the special sort of person who probably could do just that.

    It’s also a common misconception that it’s ridiculously expensive to attend a high Ivy school.  Harvard pays for everything if a student’s parents make less than 60k.  If it’s around 100k, Harvard pays the about equivalent of tuition.  So it’s actually quite affordable.  Here’s the link if your interested:  Of course, Ivy League football is nowhere near PAC-12 (and Stanford offers a lot of other perks), but price itself isn’t as much of an issue as most people would think.

    • Rick

      Of course, let’s be real. The majority of Ivies come from parents whose income exceeds 300K. The vast majority of undergrads aren’t from the sticks or lower middle class and it’s frankly a naive pipe dream to suggest otherwise. The typical profile of the Ivy League student is quite wealthy (Think Al Gore, George W Bush, JFK, etc). There’s a reason why a disproportionately large amount of wealthy families send their kids to these schools–because they can.
      Just wanted to set it straight. It just sounded like you were suggesting that the majority of the Ivy campuses are populated by kids from middle and lower middle class families while that’s obviously not the case. Highly unlikely that the middle class comprise as much as 6-8% (if that high) at the schools.
      It also goes without saying that most student-athletes that attend the Ivies aren’t going for professional reasons and the few that have made it to the pros have also majored in a legit major, something to fall back on once their brief sports careers are over.

  • George

    Tim has the right idea. 

    I’m a Stanford grad and although I LOVE that we have such great students who are athletes, I actually don’t begrudge any program for having disparate requirements for football players or other athletes. Particularly at larger state universities, it offers an opportunity for a number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity for an education they otherwise would not have gotten, whether they seize that opportunity is up to them. A great example is Bruce Irvin, the recent first pick for the Seahawks.

    At schools like Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, LSU, and other football factories (or Kentucky/Kansas etc. for BB), those players are really going to school for their respective sports program and are essentially “Majoring” in a sense in their sport. Imagine if regular students were held to the same accountability for their chemistry major as the players are for their practices and work outs.  

    I’d imagine that almost all of the athletes who play big stage sports have a goal of playing professionally and their respective programs help them achieve that. It is however incumbent of their coaches to ensure they are meeting the classroom requirements so at the minimum they can play and accomplish their goals regardless of greater ethical arguments for the same outcome.

  • stevesailer

    I wouldn’t believe Stanford’s hype too much. For example, Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart was a great kid, with an A average at a run of the mill high school and an SAT score around 1220, but Stanford would never have looked at his application if he wasn’t a jock.