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How Much Is a Degree Worth to College Athletes? Not Much

The NCAA insists that college athletes benefit from their degrees, but a mounting pile of evidence says otherwise.
Photo by Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

For decades, the NCAA and its member schools have been making millions of (tax-free) dollars off the work of college athletes, and until recently, the neo-plantation amateur economy of campus sports has gone relatively unchallenged.

Even now, the NCAA's rules against allowing players to be paid are supported by a majority of Americans, and many justify this clear injustice by arguing that college athletes alreadyare getting the most valuable compensation possible: a "free" education.


Read More: The NCAA Is Trying to Hustle Congress for an Antitrust Exemption

Of course, this is a cop-out. A way to paint an idyllic picture of college sports that lets everyone watch and enjoy games without feeling lousy about how unfair the system actually is. Unsurprisingly, it has helped the NCAA in court as well, particularly in the now-famous O'Bannon antitrust case, which saw federal judge Claudia Wilken partially defer to the association's evidence-free argument that paying athletes would interfere with their educations by somehow cutting them off from the greater campus community.

The NCAA has claimed that a degree is not only adequate payment for the work athletes do—validating its compensation limit of room, board, tuition, and bowl game swag bags—but also a Willy Wonka-shaming golden ticket to a better post-college life, a gift that keeps on giving. Testifying before Congress last summer, NCAA president Mark Emmert cited U.S. Census statistics showing that individuals with college degrees earn roughly $1 million more over their lifetimes than those without.

"These young people use their education as a springboard to a future they may not have been able to envision for themselves without college sports," Emmert said at a conference in October. "We all know that most of our student-athletes are not going to play professional sports. But we can rest assured they are going to live better lives for having played college sports."


Mark Emmert explaining … something. Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

This sounds idyllic. Only nowhere in an athletic scholarship—essentially a labor-for-price-fixed services contract—is a better life guaranteed. For that matter, actual educations aren't a sure thing, either. Rather, athletes are offered the opportunity to be educated. Too often, that opportunity is hollow. Peek behind the NCAA's curtain, and you'll find college athletes being pushed through a system where wink-and-a-nod eligibility can trump substantive learning, and where ersatz educations are baked into the cake from the very beginning, even for players who are eventually awarded degrees.

A college degree isn't always worth what the NCAA claims. It's not priceless. In fact, it's often not worth its tuition sticker price. For some athletes, it's worth little more than the paper it's printed on, which in turn makes the deal revenue sport athletes (football and men's basketball players) sign up for when stepping onto campus even more exploitative and odious.

"It's impossible for them to get a real education," said Mary Willingham, a former learning specialist at the University of North Carolina, who initially broke the story that roughly 1,500 athletes over two decades were taking sham classes. "We have to come up with a bunch of mismatched classes throughout the university that no other person at the university would take."

At the macro level, the NCAA has gotten a lot of positive press this year for its rising team graduation rates, with a GSR (graduation success rate) of 71 percent this year for FBS football. But that number is inflated by the association—and much higher than concurrent federal team graduation rates—because the NCAA does not count athletes who leave school in good academic standing but without graduating against schools' graduations rates.Inside Higher Ed detailed that discrepancy at different schools:


The GSR for Baylor University's football team is 72 percent, but the federal rate is 54. At the University of Alabama, the football team's GSR is 80 and the federal rate is 60. The University of Miami baseball team's GSR is 100 percent while the federal rate is 22.

But the problem goes beyond generalized, big-picture graduation rates. The NCAA perpetuates the idea that all diplomas are created equal—at least within each university—so that it can justify its rules against paying athletes. But the system that the association fosters can make it very difficult for athletes to use their specific degrees following college.

Willingham saw this first-hand while at North Carolina. To account for athletes' busy practice schedules and their lack of academic preparedness heading into college—she said revenue sport athletes' test scores were generally more than one standard deviation below the average student—the school created course plans for athletes that were far different from their counterparts in the general student body.

The Wainstein Report, which provided examples of academic fraud at North Carolina, detailed the existence of so-called paper classes, which "involved no interaction with a faculty member, required no class attendance or course work other than a single paper, and resulted in consistently high grades that (the professor) awarded without reading the papers or otherwise evaluating their true quality." These classes took place in the African-American studies department, and the report found that athletes were "steered" into those classes because they were easy, even though they were clearly not helpful for students trying to earn a real education.


"If you're a communications studies major and you've got a football player who's a communications studies major and you look at their worksheets (course plan) side by side, they're completely different," Willingham said.

Even at schools with sterling academic reputations like Northwestern, which graduate greater than 90 percent of their football players and even have programs in place to help those athletes get summer internships and jobs, there have been allegations of steering athletes into certain classes. At the Northwestern football unionization hearing, former Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter said that he was told he could not take certain classes.

Colter says he was steered away from premed track, taking chemistry and scheduling a 10a class.

— Teddy Greenstein (@TeddyGreenstein) February 18, 2014

Colter says coaches and athletic academic advisors do not allow players to schedule any classes before 11 a.m.

— Rohan Nadkarni (@MiamiRohan) February 18, 2014

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette study found that this kind of clustering occurs all across the country, likely in an effort to make sure athletes can maximize their time playing football:

A large number of football players at the University of Pittsburgh, which was not a Top 25 school but was included in the study for its geographic proximity, are enrolled in the administration of justice major. At Oregon, football players are bunched in a social science major, while there is a large percentage of history majors at UCLA. That fits the pattern for "clustering," a term that describes situations in which 25 percent or more of an athletic team are in the same major.


"We continue to see it growing year after year after year," said Amanda Paule-Koba, an associate professor of sport management at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

This is a considerable problem for athletes hoping to find a job in their field after graduation. Many of the athletes Willingham worked with came from poor backgrounds and did not have the connections to jobs that many of their privileged classmates did. They also could not take internships that conflicted with football. Without a class schedule that could help prepare them for careers in their majors, many athletes found themselves out of luck once their eligibility expired.

This happens all over the country. Former Florida State football star and Rhodes Scholar Myron Rolle, who epitomizes the idyllic "student-athlete experience" that the NCAA loves to brag about, testified before Congress that his experience is "quite rare." Very few of his teammates, he said, were able to "engage in their college experience."

"A lot of (players) would go through this academic machinery in their colleges and be spit out at the end of that machinery, left torn, worn and asking questions, with really no guidance on where they should go," Rolle said. "No purpose, no idea of their trajectory, and sometimes left with a degree in hand that didn't behoove any of their future interests."

With the lack of a meaningful degree, it is nearly impossible for many athletes to get a college-level job once they graduate.


"The guys I worked with are power-washing houses, they're working odd state jobs, they're working third shifts at Targets," Willingham said. "They're not using their degrees anyways because we didn't teach them what that degree can really get you."

Part of the reason schools can't be honest about the opportunities athletes in revenue sports have for a real education is they aren't honest about the academic capabilities of these athletes from the beginning.

Schools still want to recruit the best players for their football and men's basketball teams, but they don't want to put in the resources—or take away time on the practice field—to help those who enter college as elite athletes but subpar students. Players who can't do college-level work on their own, often thanks to difficult personal backgrounds and wretched primary educations.

Willingham told CNN that she had one athlete at UNC who could not read or write (she cannot name specific athletes due to privacy laws) and conducted research to show the reading levels of athletes, in particular, were not up to UNC's standards:

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.

UNC responded by attacking Willingham's claims, saying it had commissioned independent experts to review her work and found flaws in her research. In turn, Willingham filed a lawsuit against UNC, claiming she was ostracized, harassed, demoted, and reassigned for whistleblowing.


Rather than provide meaningful remedial education or a simple acknowledgement that these athletes are at a significant disadvantage because of their lack of privilege, schools continue to push the idea that getting degrees—which are simply pieces of paper granted for staying academically eligible—is all that matters. Willingham sees this failure to be honest about the disadvantages athletes have in the process as one of the biggest issues in the college athletics charade.

"These guys aren't getting the education that we promise them because they can't," Willingham said.

Willingham isn't alone in her sentiments. Marcia Mount Schoop, the wife of former North Carolina and current Purdue offensive coordinator John Schoop,wrote on her blog that UNC opted to just ignore the issue altogether, rather than deal with the setbacks that athletes who do not come from privilege will face while in college:

The UNC faithful may hate the hear this, but when the NCAA investigation of the football program was in full tilt in 2010-2011, members of the football coaching staff were told (and they were told the directive came from Chancellor Thorp) that they were not to recruit "inner city black kids" any more. This was just one piece of the plan to "change the image of the football program."

In an exchange I had with a high up member of the athletic staff, he told me the problem was unprepared black athletes and the resulting "culture gap." He explained that the "average middle aged fan" cannot relate to all the athletes who "flash gang signs" out on the field. When I told him that I did not know any players who were in a gang, he said that I should certainly recognize that the "celebration gestures" of many of the players "have gang origins."

The disdain for educating the very same athletes who most need extra help is striking, and it shows the disconnect universities have with some of their elite revenue-producing athletes, who they see less as struggling students than as sports widgets. Still, schools get away with this attitude because outside of the (quite persuasive) anecdotal evidence from Willingham, Rolle, Colter, and others who have spoken out, there isn't currently any hard data to show that football and men's basketball players are significantly worse off after graduation.

Dr. Richard Southall is trying to change that. A professor at the University of South Carolina and the director of the College Sport Research Institute, Southall is putting together a study that will examine what college athletes are actually getting out of their degrees over the course of their post-college careers, the better to move beyond what he calls "this anecdotal (phase) of this guy was successful, this guy was not successful." Researchers will comb through Facebook and LinkedIn data, and contact alumni associations to suss out how athletes have fared. It promises to be a tedious process, but Southall hopes to pin down the specific reasons some athletes do not find success after their playing days.

"We're cooperating with our colleagues in the college of social work, and what we're looking for is to determine whether there are risk or resilient factors that might increase or decrease (success after eligibility)," he said.

Even without hard data, it's clear that the educational compensation being offered revenue sports college athletes—in lieu of actual, you know, revenue—can be less a springboard than a sand pit. Emmert claims we can all "rest assured," but do athletes understand the actual deal they're being offered? Do the rest of us?

Willingham isn't so sure.

"It's one of those things where you have to be prepared," she said, "or it's not real."