One other factor to keep in mind when assessing graduation rates: As the figures cited above indicate, graduation for nonathletes is hardly a given these days. Congress recently passed the Student Right to Know Act, which will require colleges and universities to make their graduation rates public. A lot of schools fear the legislation, not because of the deplorable rates at which their athletes are graduating—which are bad enough—but because the rest of their students are doing scarcely better, and in many cases worse.
At Auburn fewer than 20% of all male freshmen will graduate in four years. "I don't think people know much about the regular student," says Knight. "They think people just enroll, and then four years later they graduate. And that when the athlete doesn't, it's abnormal."
Zane Arnold, a senior member of Auburn's basketball team, did well in school while sitting out his freshman season, but as a sophomore he found that his basketball skills had grown rusty, and, as a result, his confidence in the classroom plummeted. "He struggled for the first time here with his grades," says Knight. "Now he's dealt with what he needed to on the floor, and his confidence has come back. The two inevitably work together."
Next spring, Arnold will still need about six quarters to graduate. "I care about the education part of it because that's the only way you can continue to play ball," he says.
"They've got it all figured out—how it's going to work out," says Knight. "There's not a lot I can say if they believe their ultimate destiny is to play pro ball."
According to the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, at Northeastern University, only 0.9% of the college athletes in basketball and football play in the NBA or NFL for a year or more. That could explain why, according to Auburn, 40 former Tiger football players who have played in the NFL since 1981 have returned to campus during the off-season to continue their educations.
If a recruit has questions about the academic rigors at Cal, one of the six members of the academic support staff—who meet with every prospect—will clear them up. "We try to make sure [the athletes] know we can't find them any Mickey Mouse classes, because there aren't any," says Wellons. "I tell them that if they don't have good study habits, if they don't want to do the work, don't come here."
"It's not an easy choice for an athlete to come here," says Jo Baker, Cal's tutorial coordinator. "Professors don't know you, and if they do know you, they probably don't like you."
An athlete's first year at Berkeley is devoted primarily to learning good study habits, which most of the athletes have not acquired in high school. "We try to create a safety net for students, so they don't fall through the cracks," says Jere Takahashi, the director of Cal's athletic study center.
At Berkeley, student-athletes are hardly embraced by their fellow students. "Half the students at Cal couldn't care less what happens up at the football stadium on Saturdays," says John Sullivan, a former Golden Bear football player who is now an academic adviser at the school. "You are treated differently. You almost never get to interact with other students, so you don't feel like part of the campus. Some coaches like it that way, because then they have your total concentration. As an athlete, so many decisions are made for you, it's easy not to find out who you are."