Public records in CNN investigation show many college athletes read well below college literacy levels

Sara Ganim, the reporter who helped break the Jerry Sandusky story at Penn State, has a new story today looking at the literacy of college athletes at public schools around the country. It’s an easy story for student journalists to localize through records requests of their own.

Ganim targeted public schools that are subject to open records laws and asked for athletes’ SAT and ACT entrance exams. In some cases, where those records didn’t exist, CNN asked for the results of reading placement tests. She also asked schools how many students were offered special admissions because of their athletic merits. The response rate was pretty dismal: Out of 37 schools, only 21 provided CNN with records. Many cited FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or said they did not maintain such records.

Of the schools that responded, many schools acknowledged admitting athletes who scored below what experts say is a threshold for college literacy. At the University of North Carolina, one reading specialist researched the reading levels of athletes at the school from 2004 to 2012 and found that 60 percent read between a fourth- and eighth-grade level, Ganim reported. At the schools CNN studied, between 7 percent and 18 percent of revenue-sport athletes read well below national college averages.

This is a great story for student journalists to tackle. Beyond asking for the records Ganim sought, student journalists should talk with coaches, advisers, academic support staff, admissions offices and administrators to find out where their own schools lie. Under what circumstances will schools make an exception for athletes whose academic credentials don’t meet the school’s minimum requirements? What resources do schools have available to help athletes? How do the school’s athletes compare with non-athletes?

(Note that some of the information CNN was after might also be available in your college’s NCAA “Certification Self-Study Instrument Report,” which is a comprehensive look at the workings of each college’s athletic program that the NCAA requires each school to prepare and make public at least once every 10 years. Those reports will show, for example, the difference between the overall percentage of students admitted by “special admission” when they don’t meet normal academic standards versus the number of athletes who are “special admits.”)

As always, if you get stuck with a records request, contact SPLC’s legal hotline at (703) 807-1904.