Spurred on by tougher NCAA regulations that now punish schools for poor academic performance, a growing number of colleges and universities are investing in computers, software, tutoring, and other support services to help student-athletes succeed. But this increased spending has raised concerns among some faculty members who question why athletes should get special attention–and why other students shouldn’t.

The last five years have seen an astounding jump in the time, money, and resources devoted to academic support for student-athletes, even as some faculty members complain that just plain students are being left behind. To learn more about the trend, the Associated Press (AP) surveyed the 65 schools from the six major conferences involved in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), plus independent Notre Dame.

The AP started work before the first kickoff of the season and eventually obtained at least some financial information from 45 schools about the resources they devote to graduating athletes.

The picture formed by the data is one of schools frequently spending more than $1 million annually on academic support, with some spending hundreds of thousands of dollars more in 2008 than they did in 2004, the AP found. Eight BCS schools reported spending increases of more than 70 percent in the last five years. Four–South Florida, Illinois, Georgia, and Kansas–more than doubled spending.

Helping athletes graduate has become its own academic profession. A national group for people who work in the field has nearly doubled its membership to around 1,000 in just two years. Many work in new academic centers devoted exclusively to athletes.

Behind the spending binge, fueled by both public and private funds, are stricter NCAA regulations.

"Now, when I go around and speak on campuses and speak to coaches and athletic programs and to student-athletes, they want to brag about how well they’re doing academically," NCAA President Myles Brand said. "They want to show me the academic study centers. The coaches want to talk about and brag about their APR [Academic Progress Report]. All that is good. A few years ago, that was the last thing people wanted to talk about."

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From the moment he stepped on campus, 320-pound tackle Michael Oher seemed destined to be a star on Mississippi’s football team and a failure in its classrooms.

Oher was the son of a crack-addicted single mom, and as a teen he could barely read. His educational record–11 schools in nine years as he moved from home to home in Memphis–read like an indictment of a failed education system.

But four years later, at a school that graduates fewer than 60 percent of all students within six years, Oher has cleared every hurdle and nearly earned his degree ; all that stands between him and graduation are a final semester and workouts for the NFL draft.

"I haven’t struggled a bit in college," the All-American offensive lineman says. "It’s been a breeze."

It’s a tribute to Oher’s determination and character, to be sure. But his story also says something about the state of big-time college athletics.

Like many other athletes at Ole Miss and elsewhere, Oher got not only tutoring help, but a full range of academic support services throughout his career.

At Ole Miss, 14 full-time staffers line up tutors for student-athletes, help them choose classes, monitor study halls, and check attendance. The school opened a remodeled, 23,500 square-foot student-athlete academic center a year ago that cost $5 million. More than 60 percent of the Rebels’ 390 athletes receive at least some tutoring, and together they averaged about 1,000 sessions a week this fall.

Such services are not unusual.

Up the road in Starkville, Mississippi State recently cut the ribbon on a $10 million building that features group and individual study areas, private cubicles for tutoring, and the latest in computer and video conferencing, plus a cafeteria and weight room. A school that used to tutor students in a basement now has a facility where 12-foot-tall front doors open onto an elaborate display of great moments in school history that’s meant to wow recruits and their parents.

A few weeks after Mississippi State opened its center, South Carolina upped the ante with a groundbreaking ceremony for a $13 million facility.

Plans call for a new, three-story center at Oregon.

Oklahoma, with a 30,000 square-foot facility that cost between $7 million and $8 million, spent about $2.45 million helping all its athletes last year.

Florida, the Sooners’ opponent in next month’s national championship game, spent $1.67 million. Texas ($1.90 million), Ohio State ($1.89 million), Kentucky ($1.86 million), Tennessee ($1.83 million), and Georgia ($1.77 million) are in the same league.

Athletic departments say if such facilities are extravagant, it only demonstrates their commitment to academic success. And even some critics of college sports agree that when schools recruit often underprepared students, and demand thousands of hours of practice and travel time, they owe them extra help.

Sure enough, 79 percent of student-athletes graduated in 2008–a new high, according to the NCAA. Rates are up 3 percent since 2005, when the NCAA put in place a new system for calculating the graduation rate and academic support services were growing.

But there’s also a range of criticism. Faculty members have raised concerns about oversight, as well as the growing disparity between concierge-style academic support for athletes and what non-athletes receive.

"It grates," said Kenneth Holum, a longtime University of Maryland history professor and chair of the faculty senate. "Why are the athletes more deserving than the other students? We try hard to give all the students an equal chance to profit from the material we’re providing them, and other students don’t have this opportunity."

Teachers like Holum also believe that the growing academic support system hurts educational values. They worry student-athletes get so much help that they never learn the lessons of personal responsibility.

They also claim the trend exacerbates the isolation of student-athletes–not just socially, but educationally, too–in clusters of courses and majors where they are steered because of scheduling or perceived difficulty.

"They’re steered to the courses that they know they can pass," Holum said. "If the effort is to keep them eligible, they’re being shortchanged."

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Advisers to athletes see their work differently. They consider themselves educators. And when they lay out the case in favor of a big investment in academic support, they note that the students they work with often are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"I’m not saying a regular student is not coming from a single-parent home," said Ericka Lavender, an academic adviser to North Carolina State’s football team. "But they’re not having to get up at 4:30 in the morning and go all day, and still worry about whether their little brother or sister ate dinner or made it home from school."

Several N.C. State advisers emphasized they do a lot more than line up tutors. They teach study skills and offer career and personal advice. Increasingly, those in the field have graduate degrees in subjects like psychology and special education.

Many are former athletes, such as Natasha Criss, who works with Maryland’s men’s basketball team. When she came to Maryland as a track-and-field competitor in 1988, there were only four staffers working from cramped quarters in the old Cole Field House. Now she’s one of 15 full-time staffers working out of a corporate-like suite in Maryland’s Comcast Center arena.

She’s pushing the athletes hard. In 2006, none of Maryland’s four seniors left with a degree. All three seniors on last season’s team graduated.

"She helps us pick our classes, she checks our classes. To be honest with you, our graduation rate is getting better because of her," said forward David Neal, the lone senior on this year’s team. "She’s hounding us to do our work. We have a mandatory study hall because of her. Her job is to make us graduate, and she’s doing a great job of it."

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Critics readily acknowledge that student-athletes are entitled to academic help. But the rapid spending growth makes them skeptical the money is being doled out thoughtfully.

A big question is oversight: Whom do the academic advisers work for? The players? Coaches? The university?

"It’s a straightforward potential conflict of interest," said Nathan Tublitz, a University of Oregon neuroscientist who works with the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, an alliance of Division I faculty senates dedicated to academic reform.

Because programs need athletes to stay eligible, "it’s in their best interest to find advisers to make sure they will be eligible, whether they do it the right way or the wrong way," he said.

Mark Meleney, president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics, estimates about half of academic support operations nationwide report to the athletic director, not the academic side of the university–though Meleney personally thinks the latter structure is preferable.

A standard reply from defenders of academic services is that cheaters will cheat no matter who’s in charge.

Meleney knows that point all too well. At Florida State, where he works, the advisers report to the academic side. But FSU has been embroiled in a scandal in which 61 athletes were found to have engaged in academic fraud involving an online music course. It was determined that two employees in FSU’s office of Athletic Academic Support services, which Meleney led, had enabled and encouraged the cheating. FSU failed to monitor aspects of the program, and the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions will soon issue its decision.

In the wake of the scandal, Meleney’s contract was not renewed and he was reassigned elsewhere in the university this year. He no longer works in the field whose professional association he leads.

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Another worry is that the growth in academic support services–and their facilities for athletes’ exclusive use–is contributing to the isolation of student-athletes on campus.

At Maryland, the basketball players practice, eat dinner together, and then report to study hall in the Comcast Center, saving them travel time back and forth to campus. That might help them bond and save time for studying, but it’s an example of how they can be further isolated from the student body.

Then there is the so-called "clustering" of student-athletes in certain courses and majors.

It’s not unusual to find former student-athletes with stories like that of Ryan Roques, who was a starting defensive back at UCLA. He was on a path to a psychology degree, but a class he needed to remain eligible conflicted with practice.

His academic advisers said he only had one choice.

"They said, ‘Well, you’ve got to switch your major,’" Roques recalled. "I said, ‘What major could I possibly be three-quarters done with if I’ve actually been majoring in psychology?’ They were like, ‘Well, let’s see here, sociology or history.’"

Roques graduated in 2000 with a degree in sociology.

"A sociology degree, I don’t even know what using that would be," he said with a laugh.

After years of working within the system and rationalizing the treatment of players like Roques, David Ridpath, a former compliance director, changed direction when he became entangled in NCAA sanctions at Marshall in 2002. He says he was unfairly used as a scapegoat amid accusations of wrongdoing, including academic fraud.

Now a sports administration professor at Ohio University, Ridpath heads the Drake Group, a watchdog that has proposed doing away with stand-alone support centers and moving athletes into the normal academic advising system.

"The big problem with these academic centers for me is very clear–and only because I lived it, and I can say this from experience," he said. "The goal is to keep the kids eligible, and there’s a big difference between keeping kids eligible and helping them get a viable college education."

From 1999 to 2002, Jason Lanter was an academic adviser at Maryland in the division of letters and sciences, home to students with undecided majors. He also was an academic counselor to students who simultaneously worked with advisers from the athletics department.

He recalls student-athletes coming to him with course cards written in someone else’s handwriting.

"It’s pretty easy to read between the lines that the athletic counselors are just putting standard courses down," said Lanter, now a professor at Kutztown University and the president-elect of the Drake Group. "I’m not saying everybody did this, but it was enough for it to be an issue for concern for me. It’s just frustrating when I don’t think the athletes are receiving the education they were promised as part of their scholarship."

Deborah Reid Bryant, a Maryland assistant dean who oversees the department where Lanter worked, says policy changes implemented in 2005 have improved communication between advisers in the athletic department and their academic-side counterparts.

Said Reid Bryant, who arrived in 2006: "Each semester has gotten better and better."

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A sign on Karen Schiferl’s wall at Ole Miss reads: "You can’t fix stupid."

Everyone else, however, can be helped.

An associate athletic director who runs the school’s academic support operation, Schiferl and her staff see students with all kinds of needs. After assessing an athlete’s learning style, they offer a variety of tools to help students keep pace–from simple advising on majors to more involved help allowed under the Americans with Disabilities Act, including the use of readers, note takers, and assistive technologies.

Schiferl and her employees are aware of the arguments that swirl around athletes’ use of academic centers. They try to stay away from the debate and just assist each individual.

"We just have to help that kid as much as possible," Schiferl said. "What we really do, because of where things are, we have to compensate. We can’t remediate. We can’t make up for 19 years of not knowing. We have to figure out a way to sometimes compensate for that lack of knowledge."

A handful of Ole Miss athletes come from some of the nation’s poorest counties and don’t have a rigorous education to begin with. Others never took learning seriously until forced to keep pace or lose eligibility. Schiferl says a key to improving athletes’ lives is teaching good study habits and time management.

Peria Jerry, an Ole Miss defensive lineman who, like Oher, will likely be selected early in the NFL draft, says he didn’t take high school seriously and was forced to go to prep school to qualify for college. Over time, his view of learning changed.

"I enjoy it now," Jerry said. "It’s really easier than I thought it was going to be. I mean, a little studying ain’t going to hurt. It’s only going to help you out. That’s the way it is for the game. You’ve got to study film to see what the opponent’s going to bring to the table, so it’s basically all the same."

Links:

National Collegiate Athletic Association

Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics

National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics

The Drake Group