(CNN) — Early in her career as a learning specialist, Mary Willingham was in her office when a basketball player at the University of North Carolina walked in looking for help with his classwork.
He couldn’t read or write.
“And I kind of panicked. What do you do with that?” she said, recalling the meeting.
Willingham’s job was to help athletes who weren’t quite ready academically for the work required at UNC at Chapel Hill, one of the country’s top public universities.
But she was shocked that one couldn’t read. And then she found he was not an anomaly.
Soon, she’d meet a student-athlete who couldn’t read multisyllabic words. She had to teach him to sound out Wis-con-sin, as kids do in elementary school.
And then another came with this request: “If I could teach him to read well enough so he could read about himself in the news, because that was something really important to him,” Willingham said.
Student-athletes who can’t read well, but play in the money-making collegiate sports of football and basketball, are not a new phenomenon, and they certainly aren’t found only at UNC-Chapel Hill.
A CNN investigation found public universities across the country where many students in the basketball and football programs could read only up to an eighth-grade level. The data obtained through open records requests also showed a staggering achievement gap between college athletes and their peers at the same institution.
This is not an exhaustive survey of all universities with major sports programs; CNN chose a sampling of public universities where open records laws apply. We sought data from a total of 37 institutions, of which 21 schools responded. The others denied our request for entrance exam or aptitude test scores, some saying the information did not exist and others citing privacy rules. Some simply did not provide it in time.
Academic vs. athletic scandal
As a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro, Willingham researched the reading levels of 183 UNC-Chapel Hill athletes who played football or basketball from 2004 to 2012. She found that 60% read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Between 8% and 10% read below a third-grade level.
“So what are the classes they are going to take to get a degree here? You cannot come here with a third-, fourth- or fifth-grade education and get a degree here,” she told CNN.
The issue was highlighted at UNC two years ago with the exposure of a scandal where students, many of them athletes, were given grades for classes they didn’t attend, and where they did nothing more than turn in a single paper. Last month, a North Carolina grand jury indicted a professor at the center of the scandal on fraud charges. He’s accused of being paid $12,000 for a class he didn’t teach.
When Willingham worked as a learning specialist for athletes from 2003 to 2010, she admits she took part in cheating, signing her name to forms that said she witnessed no NCAA rules violations when in fact she did. But the NCAA, the college sports organizing body, never interviewed her. Instead, it found no rules had been broken at Chapel Hill.
UNC now says 120 reforms put in place ensure there are no academic transgressions.
But Willingham said fake classes were just a symptom of the bigger problem of enrolling good athletes who didn’t have the reading skills to succeed at college.
“Isn’t it all cheating if I’m sitting at a table with a kid who can’t read or write at college level and pulling a paper out of them? Is this really legitimate? No,” Willingham told CNN. “I wouldn’t do that today with a college student; I only did it with athletics, because it’s necessary.”
NCAA sports are big business, with millions of dollars at stake for winning programs.
In 2012, the University of Louisville earned a profit of $26.9 million from its men’s basketball program, according to figures that schools have to file with the Department of Education and were analyzed by CNNMoney. That’s about 60% more than the $16.9 million profit at the University of North Carolina, whose men’s hoops team had the second-largest profit.
Willingham, now a graduation adviser with access to student files, said she believes there are still athletes at UNC who can’t do the coursework.
UNC Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham told CNN the school admits only students it believes can succeed.
“I think our students have an exceptional experience in the classroom as well as on the fields of competition,” he said.
Anecdotally, NCAA officials admit there are probably stories that are troubling, but they also say the vast majority of student-athletes compete at a high level in the classroom.
“Are there students coming to college underprepared? Sure. They are not just student-athletes,” said Kevin Lennon, vice president of academic and membership affairs at the NCAA.
But he said the NCAA sees it as the responsibility of universities to decide what level athlete should be admitted to their schools.
“Once the school admits them, the school should do everything it can to make sure the student succeeds,” he said. “(Universities) don’t want a national standard that says who they can recruit and admit. They want those decisions with the president, provost and athletic directors. That is the critical piece of all of this.”