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UNC investigating student-athlete literacy claims, chancellor says

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UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said the school is investigating claims that many student athletes at the university read at an elementary level. UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said the school is investigating claims that many student athletes at the university read at an elementary level.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt said Thursday that the school is investigating claims that many student athletes at the university read at an elementary level.

Last week, CNN aired a report in which UNC academic counselor Mary Willingham said there are athletes at UNC who are reading at a third- and fourth-grade level. She said there is no way for them to succeed in a college classroom and that the only place they can succeed is on the football field.

However the University and the UNC System has disputed the claims. UNC basketball coach Roy Williams went so far as to address the controversy following one of the Tar Heels' recent games.

"I don't believe it's true and it's totally unfair," Williams said in his post-game press conference.

UNC confirmed Thursday that Willingham provided the school with data, and it is being "thoroughly evaluated."

In a letter to the campus community, Folt wrote, "Carolina is facing a surge of new stories in the national and local media about the academic preparation of our student-athletes.

"This interest was sparked in part by highly publicized claims about student literacy, and continues in the media almost daily. I take these claims very seriously, but we have been unable to reconcile these claims with either our own facts or with those data currently being cited as the source for the claims.

"Moreover, the data presented in the media do not match up with those data gathered by the Office of Undergraduate Admission."

Willingham said she combed through eight years' worth of test scores with the permission of the university, and found that up to 25 percent of athletes in revenue sports don't have the skills to take classes at a community college, let alone a competitive university like UNC.

Looking at 183 football and basketball players between 2004 and 2012, Willingham found that 8 percent were reading below a fourth-grade level and 60 percent were between a fourth- and eighth-grade reading level.

The University's Office of Undergraduate Admissions looked at the records of 341 student-athletes who were recruited for football, men's basketball and women's basketball between 2004 and 2012 and found that more than 90 percent of these students met the threshold defined by CNN.

The University said 34 of these students did not meet the threshold.

"We evaluate every student as carefully as we know how," said Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions. "The primary criterion for admission for all students, including student-athletes, is the student's capacity to succeed academically at the University. We only admit students who we believe have the capacity to succeed."

Still Folt said the University is taking Willingham's claims seriously and is "investigating all the claims being made."

She said, "[I]f they are found to have merit, I will take all appropriate actions. We also will do our best to correct assertions we believe are not based in fact."

The University previously commented on the controversy, calling Willingham's claim "patently unfair to the many student-athletes who have worked hard in the classroom and on the court and represented our university with distinction.

"Our students have earned their place at Carolina and we respect what they bring to the University both academically and athletically," UNC spokeswoman Karen Moon said.

Willingham said she began looking into the reading levels because she was concerned that athletes were not receiving the education they were promised by attending a top-tier institution like UNC.

"I am speaking out because the young men I worked with here deserved better than what we offered them," Willingham. "The scholarship agreement is often fraudulent. We promise an education in exchange for talent, and that's not what we are providing to many of these young people at our school and at schools across the country."

Willingham said she believes the athletes are being "exploited" by the universities because "commercialism has taken over our college sports system."

In reviewing data from 21 Division I universities -- including top-25 ranked football schools like Texas A&M, Georgia, Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Clemson -- CNN found that most schools had between 7 and 18 percent of football and basketball players scoring so low on the reading or writing portion of their exams that experts said they would only be reading at an elementary level.

The NCAA told CNN that in 2012, 30 revenue-sport athletes were made eligible despite very low SAT or ACT scores -- a number it said is a small percentage of the 5,700 basketball and football players admitted that year.

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