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.
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.