Undercover Admissions

Forty-one people were admitted to FAU this fall because of a “special talent.” Some were athletes who aren’t ready for college classrooms. FAU was complicit in it all


Mohammed F. Emran | Web Editor

Plenty of students end up at different universities because they couldn’t qualify academically for the schools they yearned to attend as high school seniors — their “dream” school.

Universities across the country admit students who otherwise would not be able to enroll, simply because they have a special talent that most do not. That could be painting or playing an instrument, but in most cases, that special talent is athletic.

Florida Atlantic has a department that oversees the applications of students who were denied admission to the school. Those students don’t meet admission criteria, but they have circumstances or unique talents that qualify them for a second opportunity at admission.

That department is called the Faculty Committee on Student Appeals. The UP requested a list of just what members comprise the list, but were told by Interim Director of Admissions Jessica Lopez-Acevedo that “[due to] the sensitive nature of their function, we do not release the names of faculty who serve on the appeals committee.”

Lopez-Acevedo, who has had her job for just six weeks, explained the process of navigating the appeals committee. No student ever sees them, but the committee sees a file with a cover sheet, letters of recommendation and other documents that could be vital in gaining admission.

Athletics and Admissions work as separate entities when athletes are involved. “All [of] this goes through the University Admissions, not athletics,” said Assistant Athletic Director Katrina McCormack said in an email.

Of the 315 students who appealed their admissions decision this past year, just 41 gained admission to the school after going through the appeals committee.

There is an extensive tutoring program available in the Oxley Center, located behind the FAU Basketball Arena Ryan Murphy | Business Manager
There is an extensive tutoring program available in the Oxley Center, located behind the FAU Basketball Arena Ryan Murphy | Business Manager

The UP requested a breakdown of the 41 students and what distinction they had that compelled the school to admit them, but was told no such file exists.

“There is no one single source of data,” said Joshua Glanzer, FAU’s assistant vice president of Media Relations and Public Affairs. “Any breakdown would take digging into the data.”

Football and basketball are revenue-generating sports. If a young man is exceptional at a given sport, schools take a chance admitting him because of the exploits a winning (money-making) program can bring to a university.

They do this thinking that the array of academic support that an athlete — one who is specially admitted —  has will help him keep his grades high enough to continue playing.

Athletes have resources at their disposal, tutoring and other services that try to help bridge the educational gap, if it exists. The FAU sports site lists four counselors and two learning specialists paid by the school, responsible for helping all athletes keep their grades high enough to remain eligible.

For athletes in particular who come in under the appeals clause, former FAU Athletic Director Craig Angelos compared the situation to a three-legged stool. The first leg of the stool is the athlete, who should be in class and taking advantages of the resources at his disposal.

The second leg is the coaches, who have the responsibility of making sure special admits are in class and actively participating. The third and final leg is the academic advisers who are to help special admits craft their schedule, as well as provide tutoring and academic support when needed.

“I’ve seen it very successful,” said Angelos of the special admissions program at his previous schools. He mentioned an NFL running back — one that he would not name — that he sees every Sunday who was once a special admit at the University of Miami.

Most players don’t end up playing football like the running back Angelos referenced. The bulk of them assimilate into the workforce with their degree, but at FAU, many football players in past years did not graduate. Florida Atlantic had the ninth-lowest graduation rate of any school in the country when the numbers came out last October.

When asked why the rate was so low, Director of Academics Marlon Dechausay suggested that players were chasing the NFL instead of taking their last classes in the spring semester.

There may be new wrinkle to the issue — some of the players simply aren’t ready to thrive in a college classroom. If players aren’t prepared on the front end, they are not reaching graduation.

“Is it unethical? Yes,” said FAU Faculty Union President Bob Zoeller. “You’re using [these kids] because they can play football, and making a lot of money off of them. Then they graduate, and they’re not really ready to get into the workforce.”Screen shot 2014-11-13 at 4.53.59 PM copy

“It’s difficult,” Angelos said. “Once they get in, they have to compete with students who had higher grades and higher test scores in high school.”

Coaches know that they are judged on two concrete issues: their win-loss record and their academic progress rate, which has to do with how successful athletes are in maintaining their eligibility.

Too many special admits on your team could be an issue because the demand on them to perform and for your staff to support them may be too great. Finding a combination of special admits who can contribute and who can hold their own in the classroom is a sensitive mix.

“It depends on your goal and mission. Your whole team can’t be that,” Angelos said of special admits. “If they aren’t graduating, the school will stop the special talent exemption program.”

A “special talent exemption” and a “special admit” represent the same idea — someone who was admitted to a school on the back of their given talent, in lieu of their academic profile.

“Everybody calls it something different,” said Angelos. He acknowledged that each of the five schools he has worked for — Miami, Indiana University, Florida Atlantic, South Florida and Florida International — had a program meant for bringing in students with unique talents whose grades and test scores may not have been up to par.

To help athletes bridge the gap between themselves and their peers and remain eligible, some schools go to extreme (illegal) lengths. An academic scandal unfolded at the University of North Carolina — 18 years of records revealed that athletes were being funneled through no-show classes.

The director of the academic support program at UNC Michelle Brown held the same position at Florida Atlantic before UNC hired her in May 2013. She arrived shortly after the scandal broke.

“I’m not so sure they’re the ones doing that type of thing,” said Zoeller, adding that his statement was purely an opinion.

A former reading specialist at the University of North Carolina, Mary Willingham, encountered many young athletes who couldn’t read or write proficiently.

The most recent report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress claims just 11 percent of black males in the 8th grade can read on grade level. Men of those same ilk ended up under Willingham’s care.

“How do you put them in four college classes?” Willingham said. “The NCAA says they have to be. It’s a constant struggle. That’s how the paper class system started.”

In August 2011, Willingham blew the whistle on a what became an investigation into paper classes that UNC athletes were taking — classes that never met, classes that only required a paper to pass the class. A “paper class,” if you will.

“That paper class system was specifically so we could keep guys eligible, because they were so woefully prepared,” she said.

Led by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, the investigation found that more than 3,000 students took fake classes over an 18-year period. The classes were designed to keep athletes eligible to play sports.

Willingham was relieved of her duties and received death threats in the wake of the pushback that ensued when she unsheathed the paper class system at UNC. She still believes she acted the in the correct fashion, but wishes that more faculty would have stood up and told the truth about what was going on in Chapel HillScreen shot 2014-11-13 at 4.36.47 PM

The system is now gone, but Willingham acknowledges that there are similar programs at schools across the country. “There’s a paper class system in every school,” she said.

The issue is much bigger than an institution, according to Willingham. Young, primarily black men are being funneled into schools across the country because of a system that exploits them.

“No one ever talks about the front door,” Willingham said. “What about the responsibility of the people who are letting these kids in? They aren’t being held accountable.”

Willingham mentioned coaches and admissions officers specifically are not doing their jobs. She also said the name nuance involved keeps these schools from acknowledging just what the programs are, according to Willingham.

“Special admissions, special talent, admission exception,” she said. “That keeps these schools from being transparent. That’s how we hide. It’s all a big scam, a moving target.”

NCAA Bylaw  states, “A student-athlete may be admitted under a special exception to the institution’s normal entrance requirements if the discretionary authority of the president or chancellor (or designated admissions officer or committee) to grant such exceptions is set forth in an official document published by the university (e.g., official catalog) that describes the institution’s admissions requirements.”

Willingham would like to see a complete reform of the system. In a perfect Willingham world, schools who are using special admissions to bring in athletes who are more than one standard deviation below the remainder of their admissions class should make said athletes redshirt — which would give them a year to ready themselves academically.

“These guys don’t want to redshirt,” she said. She hopes that dynamic would provide some push back on state education systems nationwide, to help students leave high school better prepared for the rigors of college.

Angelos thinks that schools at the top level of college athletics need a “workable blend of folks you can get through [special talent exemptions].” Schools that aren’t at that level, he says, don’t necessarily need it.

Using an alternate admissions program to bring athletes in is a slippery slope, according to Zoeller. “Is this what we want to move toward?” he said, mentioning that FAU President John Kelly saw the FAU football team as a top-25 program in the near future. “Are we willing to go to that length?”