Thursday, January 9, 2014

Some college athletes play like adults, read like 5th-graders. From CNN.

a number of readers sent us this link today.


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.

The rest of the misery...


  1. I'd been suspecting this for some time. Fortunately, word apparently has gotten around the athletic department that my general-ed science course for non-majors is a real course, so I don't get so many athletes anymore.

  2. Most of my majors are athletes, and needless to say, rumor has it the football coach doesn't like me. Tough shit.

  3. Fifth grade? I could sound out multisyllabic words when I was in first grade! But then, we didn't have Whole Language instruction in those days. What a whopping success it has proved to be!

    Seriously: never mind the athletes. (I refuse to call them "student-athletes," since they are NOT students.) Most of my students who are not athletes are reading at fifth-grade level, or not much higher. They for dang sure can't do eighth-grade math.

  4. This is, as the story itself acknowledges, a very old (or, rather, continuing) story. I'm particularly scandalized by the disparity in support for unprepared athletes and other students with equally poor preparation, who may well have been doing something far more socially useful, and genuinely indicative of the discipline and initiative necessary to catch up, than playing sports (e.g. such students may have been working long hours for pay, or taking care of younger siblings and/or elders while running a household nominally headed by parents who either work long hours or are physically or mentally mostly absent, or simply managing to earn a high school diploma despite an unstable family/home situation). Athletes who make it to the college level pretty much always have at least one adult (a coach, a parent) who invests considerable time in them, and their achievements represent that investment as well as their own effort. There are plenty of students who would make at least as good use of the opportunity for a college education as those who have succeeded in high school sports. In fact, they'd probably make better use of the opportunity, since their main focus (outside of all those distracting outside needs/responsibilities, including the need to eat, have shelter, etc.) would be the education. Whatever they say, college coaches are only invested in their athletes' college success to a certain degree: the degree necessary to keep the athlete eligible, which is pretty minimal.

    There's also an issue of gender discrimination: there are more athletics-related opportunities for boys than girls (of course girls -- especially, I suspect, lower-class girls -- go to college in higher proportions than boys anyway, but how much of boys' lesser academic success has to do with the distraction of their, or even their coaches'/parents', unrealistic sports-related dreams?).

    Iowa State's system -- offering the same academic support services to athletes and non-athletes alike -- strikes me as a major step in the right direction. It's fair to those who don't have the chance to be athletes, and it increases the chance of keeping the academic support for athletes honest (our writing center is very good at drawing the line on inappropriate help; the athletics tutors -- even when they're the same people -- I'm less certain about.) And -- bonus -- not duplicating existing systems for athletes should save money.

    Now if we could only move to athletics-blind admissions.

    This is one of the moments when I feel lucky to work for a relatively young school, one which, as some of our students are fond of pointing out, doesn't even have a football team. We have, however, had some success in that other, winter, ----ball sport, so I fear there would be resistance if we tried to go in the direction of Spelman College, which eliminated all but intramural and lifelong fitness athletic activities a year or so ago. That, I think, is the wave of the future, and could even be a selling point for value-oriented students who are too busy working to pay for their tuition to care about sports (remember, online universities don't have sports teams. Why do administrators want to emulate other aspects of the for-profits, but not that?)

    1. Excellent observations. THIS needs to be the headline of the story: that disparity!

  5. Simple, Cassandra - the big money donor in the private suite offers the President millions if they would name the arena/stadium/fieldhouse after them. The allure of massive amounts of cash is a tough one to resist, and big money doesn't go to the History Department...

  6. This is not particularly new. Alan Page told me (along with the rest of his audience) that he got the idea for the Page Education Foundation when he was in a defensive line meeting. Of eight Minnesota Vikings professional defensive linemen in the room, a significant fraction couldn't read the playbook.

  7. Why would anyone trust the person quoted in this story? She lied for years. She blamed others. So it says in the story itself:

    "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...."

    1. I only trust her because her information corroborates everything I've seen in my career.

    2. If someone with years of lying and betrayal under her belt tells me that 2+2=4, she hasn't gained my trust. Saying a few true things doesn't make someone trustworthy.

    3. Okay, I hear you. Maybe I shouldn't have said that I trusted her. What she reports, though, matches exactly what I've experienced in my teaching career, including 6 years at a Big Ten school where I tutored athletes as part of a much larger pool of remedial students. You don't like that she's a liar, and that's absolutely fine. What caught my article in the focus was the plight of these students.

    4. You could also put the question as: assuming she lied in one the two situations she described being in, which is most likely: going along with others in perpetuating a lie that is widespread in her place of work, and will help her keep her job? or lying in a way that will garner her hostility from colleagues and administrators, death threats, etc., etc.? I suppose you could argue there's some glamour (and maybe even some profit) in being a successful whistleblower, but the narrative in which somebody goes along with something about which she has doubts, and eventually decides "this is wrong; I need to speak out" makes more sense to me than the one in which she makes up a story that will make her unpopular in familiar places (and offers only dubious promise of approval and/or profit in the larger world), and, in the process, lies about lying in the past?

      I haven't seen by any means the worst of this kind of abuse, because I've been lucky enough to teach (mostly) at schools where athletics weren't a tremendously high priority. But, even in my relatively low-stakes venue, I've seen enough athletes (all in marquee sports) who struggled academically, and enough of them who seemed overly dependent on the tutors (the "I couldn't finish the draft because I couldn't get an appointment with my tutor" excuse) to feel that there's a real problem out there.

    5. Oops; there shouldn't be a question mark at the end of the first paragraph, just a period.

    6. It's been my experience, too, especially with the big time sports. The small time sports: always my best students.

  8. The follow-up is interesting too. CNN seems to have found the same info using information that is freely available. Those states that have open records laws are kicking themselves now.

    1. It would be really interesting to see what the student-athletes' SAT and/or ACT scores looked at after completing a few years of college, compared to a control group. I know the SAT, at least, is supposed to measure ability, but I suspect the results would shed some light on the subject.

  9. And now some ranting from the JDJunkyard "law school is a scam" message board:

    How the College Bubble Will Pop
    In The Wall Street Journal, Richard Vedder and Christopher Denhart write that in 1970, less than 1% of taxi drivers had college degrees. Four decades later, more than 15% do.

    Key quotes: "The answer is simple: The benefits of a degree are declining while costs rise."
    "But unless colleges plan to offer master's degrees in janitorial studies, they will have to change."

    Jan. 8, 2014 6:38 p.m. ET
    The American political class has long held that higher education is vital to individual and national success. The Obama administration has dubbed college "the ticket to the middle class," and political leaders from Education Secretary Arne Duncan to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have hailed higher education as the best way to improve economic opportunity. Parents and high-school guidance counselors tend to agree.

    Yet despite such exhortations, total college enrollment has fallen by 1.5% since 2012. What's causing the decline? While changing demographics—specifically, a birth dearth in the mid-1990s—accounts for some of the shift, robust foreign enrollment offsets that lack. The answer is simple: The benefits of a degree are declining while costs rise.

    A key measure of the benefits of a degree is the college graduate's earning potential—and on this score, their advantage over high-school graduates is deteriorating. Since 2006, the gap between what the median college graduate earned compared with the median high-school graduate has narrowed by $1,387 for men over 25 working full time, a 5% fall. Women in the same category have fared worse, losing 7% of their income advantage ($1,496).

    A college degree's declining value is even more pronounced for younger Americans. According to data collected by the College Board, for those in the 25-34 age range the differential between college graduate and high school graduate earnings fell 11% for men, to $18,303 from $20,623. The decline for women was an extraordinary 19.7%, to $14,868 from $18,525.

    Meanwhile, the cost of college has increased 16.5% in 2012 dollars since 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' higher education tuition-fee index..... Even worse, the lousy economy has caused household income levels to fall, limiting a family's ability to finance a degree.

    This phenomenon leads to underemployment. A study I conducted with my colleague Jonathan Robe, the 2013 Center for College Affordability and Productivity report, found explosive growth in the number of college graduates taking relatively unskilled jobs. We now have more college graduates working in retail than soldiers in the U.S. Army, and more janitors with bachelor's degrees than chemists. In 1970, less than 1% of taxi drivers h
    had college degrees. Four decades later, more than 15% do.


    First, colleges will have to constrain costs. Traditional residential college education will not die because the collegiate years are fun and offer an easy transition from adolescence to adulthood. But institutions must take a haircut. Excessive spending on administrative staffs, professorial tenure, and other expensive accouterments must be put on the chopping block.

    Second, colleges must bow to new benchmarks assessing their worth. With the advent of electronic learning—including low-cost computer courses and online courses that can reach thousands of students around the world—there is more market competition than ever. New tests are being devised to assure employers that individual students are vocationally prepared, helping recruiters discern which institutions deliver superior academic training.


    The cleansing would be good for a higher education system still tied to its medieval origins—and for the students it's robbing.

    Mr. Vedder, an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

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    1. Remember Nando, Kimmie?

      That message board is linked to his website.

    2. I did not remember Nando, but just Googled his participation on this page. It does not make clear to me at all what this post on a message board linked to his website (which is about how mad he is about how much he spent on a law degree?) fits into this discussion. And so much of it. I guess I don't see this conversation having much to do with college debt and costs. Maybe I skipped a step somehow.

      And I just read Frod's terrific slam of Nando and suddenly feel better.

    3. And that was before I gained my current interest in STAPLES! (Twitch! Twitch!)

    4. Yes, I don't know what Strelly is doing either. I zapped a Nando thing he posted last week that wasn't about anything to do with this blog. I actually thought it was an error. I guess not.

  10. I complained about stuff like this here:

    I get hot and bothered on a regular basis that student athletes get privileges that I, an academic scholarship recipient, would kill for. I understand that, in their own way, they're contributing to the Univerisity, but, honestly, college is about educating people. Sports ought to be a distant second thought. The idea that someone who is functionally illiterate could get into a college because of his ability to move a ball across some grass... really bothers me. They're taking seats from people who would make good members of the workforce. It's... bothersome.

    And in response to Strelnikov, as a student I've picked up on what the true superfluous costs are. Professorial tenure is not one of them. If my university cut back on that any more it would make it impossible for us to attract decent professors and we would suffer as a result. Here's a thought: Cut every sports program that isn't revenue positive.

    1. " Professorial tenure is not one of them."

      I didn't say that - the possible crackhead Richard Vedder wrote that. In the "Wall Street Journal" to boot.