College Football's Initial Illiteracy Problem

By Nicholas Jervey on January 11, 2014 at 7:30a
These guys made it through Ohio State just fine. Not everyone does.

One of the top stories in college athletics this week had nothing to do with how anyone played on the field or the court. Instead, it dealt with something larger: academic integrity.

The big business of college football and men's basketball is something academics are conflicted about. One one hand, they provide incredible exposure, publicity, and income for the university. On the other hand, those programs' scandals can undermine the university's reputation. Just ask the University of North Carolina, which for three years has been under siege for violations ranging from excessive benefits to tutors completing work for students to holding fake classes.

Or ask Ohio State, which has been living down Andy Katzenmoyer's summer classes for fifteen years now.

Sara Ganim, a reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot best known for her Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Jerry Sandusky rape case, joined with CNN to promote an interactive story about the athletes that come into major football and basketball programs. To find out the patterns of which students are being admitted, she filed open records requests with forty of the top football and men's basketball schools in the country.

Ohio State and twenty other schools provided data in response. In many cases, athletes with the initial reading or writing ability of eighth graders were asked to complete college work; one of those schools was Ohio State.

That is not to say Ohio State develops students poorly – its APR scores suggest that Ohio State athletes develop well – but rather that the university is admitting freshmen who are unable to complete college work.

Ganim uses the standard of someone being college-literate as an SAT critical reading or writing score of 400 or ACT score of 16. When she wrote to Ohio State requesting the records, Ohio State wrote back saying that it did not use those measures.

Instead, the university uses a different measure of college-readiness, the Wide Range Achievement Test 4 (WRAT4), which instead scores by grade level. All incoming football players take this test, which measures reading comprehension and math skills. Though test result formats changed from 2009-2013 and equivalent grade levels are inconsistently applied, a 20th percentile or lower score for critical reading is roughly equivalent to an eighth grade reading level, which is also used as a cutoff for college illiteracy.

Freshman Football Players Testing at or Below 8th-Grade Level
Summer 2009 5/24
Summer 2010 4/9
Summer 2011 4/13
Winter/Spring 2012 3/7
Summer 2012 1/17
Spring 2013 0/5
Summer 2013 2/20
Total 19/93

Ohio State's data says that 93 players took the WRAT4 from 2009-2013. By my count, 19 graded at either an eighth grade or 20th percentile or lower level in critical reading; that’s one in five football players who were unsuited for college material entering Ohio State.

The trends do suggest an improvement over the past few years; from 2009-2011, 25% of football players tested below the threshold, while only 13% did in 2012-2013.

The disappointing thing about this is that Ohio State is slightly below compared to its peers. Other schools like Ohio State, such as Georgia, Texas, Iowa State, and Fresno State, were in the range of 12-16%. Several other Big Ten schools (Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin) were also contacted for this information, but most of them did not share it. Michigan and Michigan State denied the requests on privacy grounds, and Nebraska denied the request because it does not track entrance exam scores or have reading specialists. Only Wisconsin was willing to share records, likely because its track record is the best of any respondent, with only two athletes scoring below the threshold from 2007-2012.

This CNN report has caused quite a bit of consternation with the NCAA, which criticized the report as inaccurate. The NCAA says that football and men's basketball players consistently outperform their peers, citing overall SAT scores within its talking points:

  • In the group of more than 29,000 student-athletes who entered Division I institutions for the first time in 2012, only 16 were certified as eligible with test scores below 600 (or the ACT equivalent) – which is .05%. Of those, only 2 were in the sports of men’s basketball or football.
  • Only 68 were certified as eligible with scores between 600 and 700 (0.2%).  Of that group, 28 were men’s basketball or football student-athletes.
  • Test scores and GPAs are very highly correlated. This is why it is a very rare event to have a very low test score, but grades high enough to be certified as eligible.  It is only slightly more common to see very low grades paired with a high test score.

Anonymous university officials also have a number of explanations and rationalizations for the low scores. These include athletes not caring about scoring well on entrance exams, only wanting to become NCAA eligible; low scores being indicators of learning disabilities; and entrance exams being only one factor in deciding whether to accept a student-athlete.

With that said, there's a distinction between a learning disability and a lack of effort, and I can speak from personal experience. I was registered with the Office of Disability Services at Ohio State, and spent a fair amount of time around tutors and football players. On one occasion, I remember a tutor trying to coax a player through a writing assignment, who wanted nothing to do with it; the tutor had to start writing an outline for him. That's not academic fraud, but it does rest in the uncomfortable grey area where a player may be receiving more help than he ought to.

John Infante, a former compliance official who worked in several universities' compliance departments and at one time blogged at the NCAA's official site, believes the NCAA's criticism sidesteps the report, since the NCAA focuses on overall SAT scores and not critical reading scores, which was the focus of Ganim's report:

To address CNN’s report head on, the NCAA must release at least composite data about SAT critical reading and ACT reading scores, not composite scores. Alternatively, the NCAA could use the data it has to demonstrate that the central claim of the CNN report (i.e. < 400 SAT/16 ACT reading score = not college literate = should not have been admitted/received a degree) is incorrect. But this response and the data presented by the NCAA does nothing to refute the conclusions Ganim asks us to draw.

All in all, this is a lot of fancy talk to cover what a university's mission ought to be. The point of attending a university is to improve one's critical thinking skills, and the idea of an athletic scholarship is to reward students for their athletic prowess by giving them an opportunity to develop their minds. There may not be a solution for football programs admitting freshmen who can't handle college yet, but it's important to keep it in mind. Schools are obligated to help students learn, and if they don't in order to keep programs worth hundreds of millions of dollars running smoothly, they betray their charter.



Statutoryglory's picture

I think you should combine the 2012 early enrollee stats.  The "1/1" singles a kid out for maybe having a learning disability.  Not cool.

Nicholas Jervey's picture

That's a fair point. Those two 2012 rows are merged now. Thanks for the catch.

Ceci n'est pas une signature.

Nutinpa's picture

I haven't taken the time to read the full article, but I won't take any college athletics literacy analysis seriously until one is undertaken for football players in the SEC.  I would guess that the typical....not random or isolated...but typical SEC player is only marginally literate.  If that means 8th grade level, then so be it, but I would contend, even 8th grade is probably stretching it.  If I am unfairly generalizing, then I'd like to be proven wrong.
Gordon Gee took a lot of flak...justifiably so in his tenure as OSU President.  But his snarky comments about the lack of academic admission standards in the SEC were spot on.  Not to suggest, as this article points out, that every Buckeye is splitting the atom, but it would be interesting to see the comparison -- but I doubt it will ever happen.  AJ McCarron's mom had a lot of nerve for calling out Jameis Winston for his inarticulate gurgling on National TV while trying to compose himself.  She should listen to her son's' teammates and their peers in that conference for a cringe-worthy earful.

Ethos's picture

Your first sentence explains how pointless the rest of your statement was. 

"What do you need water for, Sunshine?!" - Coach Coombs, if you don't love this man, you have no soul.

Nutinpa's picture

You sound quite full of yourself.  Nice to see you have appointed yourself an editor-in-waiting. My post spoke for itself and was discussing the SEC.  I am quite aware of what was specifically pointed out in the article.  

Ethos's picture

And if you'd read the article instead of going off on a rant you'd find they looked at SEC schools. 

"What do you need water for, Sunshine?!" - Coach Coombs, if you don't love this man, you have no soul.

Nutinpa's picture

Give yourself the editorial pat on the back that you are so anxious for. Yes, Georgia was included in the report. I am referring to its conference as a whole and making a generalization.....that I maintain has merit despite the howls from those who resent it. 

cdub4's picture

What does the SEC have to do with anything? It amazes me how people have to bring them up in every discussion. I am more concerned about Ohio State and how they do things than another school or another conference.

Ohio State recruits the same athletes SEC schools do...Bell, McMillan, Dixon, etc and if Jamies Winston pledged to Ohio State instead of FSU, Tress would have accepted his commitment and this board might have crashed due to the excitement.

It would be great if every college accepted only players that would be accepted if they didnt play a sport, but that would/will never happen, and not sure if the fans truly want that anyways.

Ethos's picture

"Schools are obligated to help students learn, and if schools doesn't in order to keep programs worth hundreds of millions of dollars running"
(cringe) You guys need to hire an editor this wasn't the only one either. I give you a +1 for irony if that was what you were shooting for here. 

"What do you need water for, Sunshine?!" - Coach Coombs, if you don't love this man, you have no soul.

brandonbauer87's picture

Newspapers and magazines have editors, and I still find errors in almost every one I read. 

Buckeye1996's picture

Errors and typos are one thing, but the ability to read, write and do arithmetic are fundamentally important to success (how ever you want to define it) in life.
Those who can do basic math and effectively communicate their thoughts (verbally and written) can be very successful leaders and tend to quickly move up the corporate ladders.
In the spirit of the article, I have no problem with allowing borderline students into college, athletes or not. I think they all can do well if given guidance and encouragement. I don't like articles that suggest "rule bending" for athletes when the numbers don't line up.
Some, not all, of all potential students (including athletes) have not had much support or guidance in their early years. I fell squarely into that category early in my life, and I went on to graduate from both OSU and USC with advanced degrees.
I am a professor and home schooler our children. What I have learned over the years is that you don't have to be a genius to get all the basics. You just have to be willing to put the time in and have someone help you.
Having a parent, mentor or tutor to encourage you is vitally important, however, it all comes down to the individual and their willingness to grind it out. This is true even among those who have a learning disability. 
I tend to look at positives of the original articles. Football scholarships offer a great opportunity to get an education. It is up to the individual athlete to take advantage of that opportunity through hard work. Some do, some don't. The same is true with the general student population.
I apologize for any spelling or grammatical errors in advance! :)

The Butler's picture

Buckeye1996 - I totally agree with your post. 

I've trained Canaries in the sport of falconry.


jaxbuckeye's picture

Great post.  I would like to add that it made me laugh to read, "I apologize for errors in advance" as the final sentence in your post.

Buckeye1996's picture

Ha ha. My disclaimer. Just in cace case.

swainpm's picture

I would upvote the hell out of your post if I could. Helping kids grow and learn is what college is all about; why limit the opportunity to a select few? As long as the majority of athletes meet standards I think it is great that tOSU will reach and provide an opportunity to someone to change for the better. I am sure this will open tOSU and other similar universities up for scrutiny, but a noble effort is worth it. That said, it would be great to see some kind of measure of how the "8th grade level readers" do once they are provided guidance and tutoring. From the academic scores I have seen it seems most OSU athletes improve and perform quite well once at college. I personally love to see the high scores and grad rates because in my opinion winning is only worth it when you do it the right way.

Buckeye1996's picture

Great post. I can tell you from my experience that SAT/ACT/GRE or whatever score only measures where you are and not where you can go.
I think the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell makes a great case for what it takes to be successful in anything. Help, opportunity, and busting your ass. 

Denny's picture

lol @ using Gladwell to support an argument


Buckeye1996's picture

That's a good book. We aren't trying to publish an article here. I suppose someone could recommend something that no one can understand and only two people have read? :)

CarolinaBuck's picture

How does a university respond to this? It's easy to say students need academic support from their school and up to a point they do, but many of these players lack the basic skills to be competitive in a academic setting. The simple fact is that college athletics have become as big a business as it gets. Not singling out Ohio State, but they are in the top two or three revenue generating schools in the country and most years they spend every dime. They are constantly on the lookout for more revenue streams, the latest being letting NIKE tell us what uniforms to wear for a hefty fee. The best way to insure revenue growth at any school is to WIN at a high level in football and basketball. To do that you need a lot of players whom playing sports growing up was first priority and academics were somewhere down the line. We accuse the SEC of lower academic standards and they may or may not have them, but if we hope to be competitive with them and receive  gigantic TV contracts, they are our competition. A race to win may also be a race to the bottom in the academic world. Ohio State and every other university could stop with the charade classes and degrees tomorrow if they wanted to by just recruiting players who scored well on their college boards and statistically had a better chance to be successful in a academic environment. To do that, you would say good bye to many of the current players in college today. So my guess is, the universities around the country will make passionate, stirring speeches about the need to improve this situation and then do nothing about it. Big time schools need big time money and that will rule the day.

Junior Samples's picture

Does anybody think Jameis Winston is really going to class on Monday?

Jdadams01's picture

A friend of mine is a tutor for LSU and he has horror stories about their players. He has used children's books many times over the years to help some of them read.

gravey's picture

I've taught college for 20 years.  Sure, a lot of athletes aren't prepared for school.  There are a lot of other students who are just as poorly prepared for college  - and in recent years it has been more often than not international students and other out-of-state kids.   I think something like 25% of our freshman class was not college ready in math and/or language.   Test scores frequently tell us more about their high school than the individual.
To me two of the more important question are:
How different are the athletes from the rest of the student body in terms of academic readiness?Are we doing the right thing by admitting students when they need significant remediation?

Buckeye1996's picture

 "Test scores frequently tell us more about their high school than the individual."
I am getting a bit off topic here, but I had some thoughts.
I think it is less about the high school and more about the upbringing. Parents are ultimately responsible for their children, and they should be the ones to make sure their children are educated. They should sit down with their children everyday to go over homework and the day's lesson. If parents do this starting from Kindergarten, then it sets the tone for years to come.
In some schools, teachers are forced to focus more on behavior management than educating. Where are the parents of the disruptive children? I'll tell you where they are. They are in the teacher's grill blaming them for their kid's lack of education and poor behavior.
To be sure, you do get some bad teachers, but all in all the good 'ol US of A has so many opportunities to offer that go to waste. It makes me sick.
A good boot in the ass for some of these kids would help, but the parent should show the same commitment expected of the student.

The Butler's picture

Preach it, Buckeye1996! It's not even Sunday and you're truthin' it!

I've trained Canaries in the sport of falconry.


Buckeye1996's picture

LOL. Thanks Butler. That gif is hilarious.
I'm warming up for Sunday!
By the way, my wife was a teacher in a really rough school. All 105 lbs of She brought the parents of disruptive students into the classroom and gave them ownership of their child's education. It opened the parents and the child's eyes. You would be shocked at how well it worked!
I know what teachers go through and also know there are a some bad teachers too. But parents are the key.

The Butler's picture

I am right there with you. As parents, it's our responsibility to raise our children from dependence to independence. While I have entrusted their education to people who know better than I, it is still my duty to my children to ensure that they get the most out of their educators. I am lucky enough to have smart children, but we still sign up for parent/teacher meetings - in high school - and make sure that the teachers know that if they have any problems with my kids they should let me know, and I will handle it at home.
I realized early on that my kids were never going to be D1 caliber athletes, so the only way they were going to receive scholarships were if they were merit based. I have a son who is a senior in high school and his good grades are paying off for him.
I coached HS football many years ago and have always been of the opinion that if parents cared as much about their children's grades as they do their playing time, we wouldn't have as many kids slipping through the cracks.

I've trained Canaries in the sport of falconry.


Buckeye1996's picture

Spot on and right on! You were/are the CEO of your children's education, and it paid. The buck stops there so to speak. Kudos to you!

Eph97's picture

Just read the deadspin article on the academic shenanigans involving the FSU football team to see what happens down South. I think universities would be better serving their academic missions by completely separating football and basketball from the rest of the school and just hiring these players as paid independent contractors. Let them decide if they want to go to college as students later on once their college career is over (they will also face the same admissions standards as real students at that point).

BuckGnome's picture

Paging Cardale Jones .....

okiebuck's picture

These are not just issues for the schools but for our society overall. I'm sure some will DV me on this but...One of the elephants in the room and not spoken of enough, especially as people discuss the anniversary of the "war on poverty" is this fact: prior to 1965, the rate of two parent families in the African American community was 82% and today the number of children born out of wedlock is about 69%. You cannot tell me this break down of the family is not the main problem.

"Fate has cards that it don't want to show"

Ethos's picture

Correlation does not mean causation. There is never just one thing that is to blame. Something Americans have a tough time dealing with. 

"What do you need water for, Sunshine?!" - Coach Coombs, if you don't love this man, you have no soul.

okiebuck's picture

Agree, and I didn't say it's the only thing; just the main thing, and by fixing /improving the family structure, many of the other issues would remedy themselves.

"Fate has cards that it don't want to show"

ibuck's picture

okiebuck: You cannot tell me...

OK. Does singling out this one factor mean you won't listen to other possible causes?
Because there are a lot single parents' kids graduating from college, some with honors.

Our honor defend, we will fight to the end !

ibuck's picture

Nicholas, would you please identify those in the photo, who made it through OSU ? Thanks.

Our honor defend, we will fight to the end !

Deadly Nuts's picture

Is the far right Guiton? I think the far left is C.J. Barnett. The middle could be Corey Linsley


Jordan Wagner's picture

Correct. Barnett - Linsley - Guiton

Deadly Nuts's picture

Do I win something?


RufusVonDufus's picture

Anybody know what their degrees were in?


nm_buck's picture

Looks like their degrees are in some sort of fancy, scarlet-colored folder.