This is Lew Margolis.

UNC recently announced a new program—Complete Carolina–for students who were athletes, but left school without a degree. The program provides financial support, academic advising, and career counseling. I commend UNC for this effort to elevate the importance of education, reflected in a college degree, by enabling these former students to return to school. I am, nevertheless, curious about aspects of this new program.

Let’s be clear. The problem that this program is trying to address, for the most part involves players in football and basketball, the two revenue sports. The risk of dropping out of school is much greater for students who play those sports than for swimmers, gymnasts, or tennis players, because of the financial incentives. Why not look more closely at the reasons that the risk of dropping out is so much higher among football and basketball players? If certain students are recruited to UNC with a priority on athletic performance and promise instead of educational readiness, why do we think that the football and basketball players who fall into that category would be able to return to school, unless Complete Carolina will include opportunities for remedial studies to address educational weaknesses?

It seems to me that this program is the best expression of the basic contradiction between big-time college sports and education. Why, we must ask, does UNC feel compelled to create this opportunity? Don’t these athletes come to Carolina as students, the same way that physicists, linguists, musicians, and philosophers enroll to earn college degrees? Sadly, the answer is no, they do not. Football and basketball players are recruited, at no small expense, to provide entertainment and to fill the seats in Kenan Stadium and the Smith Center. They are recruited to assure that UNC teams are competitive, because competitive teams reap the benefits of the overwhelming growth in television revenues for football and basketball. They are recruited so that UNC can pay the stunningly high compensation of coaches and for what seems like an ever increasing number of staff. I know what academic advisors do, but can anyone, with a straight face, explain how an NCAA compliance officer advances the mission of the university? Sadly, too many individuals are recruited for full time jobs as athletes, where too often their education becomes a game of maintaining academic eligibility.

Here’s something to think about. Would UNC make this generous offer of support not just to athletes, but to any student who comes to UNC and leaves early because they need to earn money or attend to a sick family member? If not, why not?