The Ethics of Using “Special Admits” at Pac-12 Universities


This is the first in a three part series examining the discrepancies or consistencies between the academic requirements of Pac-12 universities for the general student population and those of student-athletes. In Part I, we will lay out the potential costs and benefits of allowing student-athletes who do not meet the minimum academic requirements of a university in as “special admits”. We’ll ask the somewhat philosophical and rhetorical questions about these practices and then try to address some of them.

In Part II, we’ll focus on the actual statistics (SAT, GPA, etc) of which universities actually do lower their admittance standards the most, which allow the highest percentage of “special admits”, and whether that really is necessary to be a successful athletic program in a major conference.

In Part III of this series, we’ll examine what happens academically to student-athletes once they arrive on campus by examining the Academic Progress Rate (APR) and graduation rates and will discuss whether it has been worth the risk to admit athletes who did not appear to be prepared academically to compete in the classroom.

There is often a jestful give-and-take between fans and alumni of various universities about both the athletic performance of their favorite university on the field or court, as well as, the relative academic strength of the institution. While some people crow over a university’s athletic success in football or basketball, often others will rationalize the results by pointing out their institution has a much higher academic ranking or overall prestige.

But, what does it mean for instance that the University of A won a national championship in football with players who could barely make it into college and probably won’t graduate, while the University of S managed to also make a BCS bowl with a team full of valedictorians who will have careers as engineers, doctors, and professors? I mean, what is college all about anyways? What impact will this have on these players once they leave college?

The use of “special admits” is a controversial practice that has largely flown under the radar among general sports fans, but is a contentious issue among university administrators and admissions officers. Some people decry the thought that someone with a 3.8 GPA in high school, high SAT scores, who played varsity sports, or was in the band, or was involved in community service may get rejected from a highly respected school like UC Berkeley (one of the best public universities in the world), while a football player with a 2.3 GPA, barely a high enough SAT on the NCAA’s sliding scale, and no real extracurricular activities to speak off beyond HS football can not only get into the university, but gets a full-ride scholarship. Then, take into account the many hours of practice and days of school missed for games and one has to wonder which student will be more prepared to be successful in the college classroom and in the “real world” workplace after graduation.

On the other hand, there are many people who will rightfully point out that there is no realistic way for the Top 30 or so academic institutions in the country to compete on the field or court against lower-tiered universities who have acceptance rates close to 100% when they hamstring themselves with high entrance requirements for the top athletes. How could UC Berkeley compete with lower tiered universities like Houston, Memphis, UNLV, UTEP, or others who are ranked near the absolute bottom of major academic rankings and who accept virtually any high school student with a pulse who applies?

The fact is, if the NCAA required Division I universities to only accept student-athletes who meet each universities’ academic requirements, the balance of power in athletics would shift dramatically toward the mid-majors and down South. Sure, there would always be athletes who would want to play for the major state universities, but for those who struggle even to graduate high school, their only options in such a scenario would be the lower tier. This would make the Toledo’s and Wichita State’s of the world kings of college basketball!

One thing many academic reform proponents would like to see is the NCAA raise its minimum academic standards for athletes both to make sure these athletes are more prepared for college when they arrive and to even the playing field between the higher academic universities and the lower ones. But, these lower tiered universities would then complain that athletes are being held to a higher standard than their general student body. Can you imagine a scenario in which it is more difficult for athletes to get into South Florida (rank #181) or West Virginia (#164) than it is for local state residents?

The only way college athletics can remain more-or-less on an even plane is to set a minimum standard that all universities must stick to and then let individual universities decide if they want to maintain higher standards on a case-by-case basis. The NCAA has slowly raised its standards over the years, but they are still letting in far too many athletes who could not possibly be successful at a university without full-time tutors and special “easy” classes or majors to ease them through.

While there are some universities who do maintain higher standards for their athletes than the NCAA bare minimum (University of Washington is one of them) and there are others who who not change their expectations at all (Stanford), most major Top 100 universities regularly let in any student-athlete they want on the floor regardless of their academic preparedness. That is because most universities have what is called “special admit” status. This gives the university admissions and athletic departments the ability to waive their academic requirements for students who they decide bring value to the university in other ways.

Now, having a “special admit” process is not necessarily a bad thing, as there are numerous cases where making an exception can be extremely beneficial to both the university and the student. Occasionally there are students who have a gift for music, or the arts, or come from an unusual background (a 91-year old WWII vet, a Tibetan monk, a woman who had a child at 13 trying to turn her life around, etc) whose mere presence can be beneficial to the college experience of the general student population. In fact, approximately 1-2% of students at major universities are accepted under “special admit” status.

But, more often than not, they are admitted simply because they can dunk a basketball, hit someone really hard on the football field, or can hit home runs. In fact, it is estimated that 30% of student-athletes are enrolled under “special admit” procedures in the Pac-12. Now, one can not deny that athletics does bring value to a university. Football teams often provide nearly 90% of the revenue to an athletic department, which provides the funding and opportunities for the golf team, women’s swimming, or cross-country to compete. That gymnast on scholarship probably has one because of the exploits of the free safety or running back on the football field. Men’s basketball often brings in another 10% of the revenue, with women’s basketball, baseball, and soccer often chipping in only around 1-2% of the revenue overall.

There is also a definite case to be made that having athletics on campus enhances the overall college experience of the rest of the student body. I know it did for me! I was a season ticket holder for Husky football as a student and attended basketball games (during the dreaded Lynn Nance Era). I briefly dated one of the women’s soccer players and attended a number of their games, as well as, the men’s soccer team games. The weekly countdown to gameday and having Saturday dedicated to eating, dressing in purple, and walking from the dorm to Husky Stadium was every bit as much of my college experience as riding my bike down Rainier Vista to class, cramming for finals, and hanging out with friends on The Ave.

There is also evidence that successful college athletics programs have tangible effects on the universities’ non-athletic bottom line. There is evidence that successful athletic programs enhance application rates, overall student populations, and rates of giving to non-athletic funds. Dubbed the “Gonzaga Effect“, there are a number of universities (Boise State, TCU, George Mason, to name a few) that have documented increased rates of applicants following successful seasons and many universities are able to raise more funds to build libraries or offer academic scholarships to students when their athletic teams are more successful. In addition, making a university a part of a larger community by involving people who are not or were not students enhances the pressure on lawmakers to supply adequate funding for academic needs as well.

That being said, one has to ask, is there a line by which too many special exemptions can be offered? If you are one of the most difficult universities in the country to get into or be successful in, is it fair to the student athletes and the general population to put those players in that position? Would it be better for the student-athlete themselves to attend a lower-tiered university where they might have a better chance at academic success or increase their graduation rate? Those are the questions that will be addressed in Part II of this series.