UNC-CH announces program to help athletes complete degrees

07/24/2014 9:19 AM

07/24/2014 9:23 PM

At a time when universities are making new promises to take care of athletes during and after their playing years, UNC-Chapel Hill will give scholarships and counseling to help former athletes finish their degrees.

A new program, dubbed Complete Carolina, was announced Thursday by Chancellor Carol Folt.

The university has always encouraged athletes who left school early to earn their degrees eventually, Folt said. The program is a way to formalize that and put new resources into it, she said. Scholarships will be funded by the booster organization known as the Rams Club, and other expenses will be covered by the athletic department.

“This really will extend for life,” Folt said at a board of trustees meeting. “We’ll try to get as many (student athletes) as possible back, and it’s our hope that all students will eventually return to be able to complete their degree.”

In a new era of congressional scrutiny of the NCAA, legal challenges and talk of unionization by college players, the landscape of athletes’ benefits is changing.

Last month, Indiana University announced a bill of rights for athletes, including a lifetime guarantee of free tuition. Seeking to save the amateur model of collegiate athletics, presidents in the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences have signed letters arguing for four-year scholarship guarantees, educational trust funds and medical benefits for student athletes.

“Part of the national discussion is: What do we provide for students? We provide them an education,” said UNC-CH’s athletic director, Bubba Cunningham. “That’s what the collegiate model is. So we want to fulfill that obligation for all of our students.”

The Complete Carolina program will start accepting applications Sept. 1. Former athletes who left the university in good academic standing will be able to resume their scholarship at comparable support, including tuition, fees, room, board and books.

Cunningham said the university graduates 90 percent of its student athletes, but going back decades, there could be hundreds of athletes who didn’t earn a degree. It’s unclear how many would be interested or how much the program could cost. He estimated 30 to 40 former athletes have returned to school in the past decade.

‘Right thing to do’

“We hope we can get as many students attracted as possible,” Cunningham said, “because we think it’s the right thing to do.”

It’s not unusual for universities to extend help to athletes who want to get their diplomas after their eligibility has expired. But generally, universities don’t have formal programs or guarantees.

Duke, Wake Forest and East Carolina universities provide financial support for athletes who want to earn a diploma, on a case-by-case basis.

For example, a former baseball letterman who left to play professionally in 2007 is on campus this summer for coursework and will graduate this fall, Duke University spokesman Art Chase said. Duke’s athletic department is providing financial aid to him, Chase said.

ECU’s director of communications, Mary Schulken, said that in rare cases when ECU doesn’t have available money, it works to get the necessary funding from the NCAA, which has a degree-completion program.

Two former ECU athletes who left school early to pursue professional sports are back on campus working toward degrees, Schulken said. The university is also establishing a life skills program for athletes.

UNC-CH will add academic advisers, if necessary, and actively recruit athletes to return to campus, Folt said. For those who can’t come to Chapel Hill, Cunningham said, “we need to look at an educational trust fund where they could finish that degree somewhere else. I think this is a great way to start that dialogue.”

The university’s football coach, Larry Fedora, said of the announcement: “Well, I think it’s awesome. ... I think it’s something that ought to be done all over the country. And I’m proud that we’re one of the first to do it.”

Wainstein investigation

UNC-CH’s announcement comes at a time when the quality of athletes’ education is under a microscope. Independent investigator Kenneth Wainstein is probing academic fraud and misconduct at Chapel Hill, particularly no-show classes that featured a disproportionate number of athletes.

The NCAA also reopened an investigation into the athletic department.

Earlier this year, former UNC basketball star Rashad McCants said in an ESPN interview that he rarely went to class when he was a student. McCants said tutors wrote his papers and that men’s basketball coach Roy Williams knew about the “paper classes” in African and Afro-American Studies, in which class was not held and students were only required to write a final paper.

Williams has denied the allegation, and other former Tar Heel basketball players have dismissed comments by McCants, who was a member of the 2005 national championship team.

On Thursday, Folt said the NCAA’s renewed investigation wasn’t unexpected. Wainstein’s inquiry will conclude fairly soon, she said, but she did not provide a target date for his final report.

Staff writers Andrew Carter and Laura Keeley contributed to this report

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