Kristin Kane oversees the academic life of Illinois football players. But her job doesn't begin when the students enroll. No player can be recruited at the UI without her signing off on their likelihood of qualifying academically.
"We've gotten feedback from kids who've gone to other schools. They said one of the things that's really good about Illinois is academics is always involved.
"My only experience is at Illinois, so I don't know any different. But the coaches think it's important that they hear all this stuff early on. That it's not going to be easy, but that you have somebody to help you. So they understand it all along. This is going to be their expectation from a school standpoint."
Illinois emphasizes academics beginning with the first recruiting contacts.
"We'll meet with potential recruits on Junior Days, kids who are on campus for camp or things like that. And then as we get into their senior year, we're involved in all the official visits.
"We have set academic meetings with them on official visit weekends, but we also are at every meal. So if parents have questions, we can know the kids and know the families. That's as important as anything to me.
"I know before they're coming in what I'm working with. So if this particular student struggles in this particular area, I'm ready for it. We can adjust to help that student the best way possible. I think we're pretty involved."
Kane gets an early look at high school transcripts and provides guidance on what is needed to qualify at Illinois.
"This year I maybe did 100 or so transcript evaluations of high school students. They'll start sending transcripts to us at the end of their junior year and beginning of their senior year. We do a preliminary evaluation.
"We can look at a student and say there's no way this student can get into Illinois. The coaches then know that and can make adjustments in their recruiting. We can't keep recruiting this kid because he's not gonna make it.
"We see areas, if a kid needs to improve a test score, those are things we can tell them early on so those students have a year to work on that. That's been one of my primary responsibilities, besides my day-to-day counseling, is to do those evaluations and work through that process."
Kane's counseling role includes advice on possible Majors.
"The athletes apply to college just like every other student on campus, and their application is processed like normal. But we have an idea going in. Say this kid wants engineering, but we know he's not an engineering candidate. We can look for something else for him. My boss Tom Michael is the liaison with the admissions office on campus for the student-athletes."
Top student-athletes are easy to spot. Their grades would be accepted at most every university in the country. And those with minimal academic potential are equally noticeable. The problem comes with the vast grey area in between extremes. Academic counselors and coaches have a true dilemma knowing how to proceed in these cases.
"It is difficult for everyone. People say coaches should know that, but ultimately their job is to coach football. People don't understand, there's a lot more they have to deal with than just Saturday games and practices.
"There are times when they are going to continue to recruit a kid if they think that particular student is a great fit for our program. You'll see absolutely great kids that, for one reason or another, haven't been able to get what they need academically in high school.
"Every coach in America would tell you, there are times when you may continue to recruit that kid and take a chance. That maybe he's going to get where he needs to be.
"Certainly, there are kids who have no chance, and coaches know enough to stop. But then there's kids who are worth it to us from a personality standpoint, from a work ethic standpoint, whatever it is, he's worth it for us to continue on. We know he might not make it, but it's worth it to us to talk that risk."
Some athletes sign athletic scholarship tenders in February without knowing their academic situation. They are offered scholarships under the proviso they attain the grades and test scores by the time they complete high school. Some succeed and some don't.
"Final grades for high schools don't come out until the middle of June. Sometimes people say, 'How can you not know this?' They sign in February, and things can drastically change for the better or for the worse in one semester. A lot of times we wait to see how someone's doing, if they might be borderline, before we proceed with admissions or anything like that."
Does a student have options on improving a grade in time to enroll with his classmates?
"In any high school in America, a student can do a grade replacement course. If they didn't do well enough in it, they could take the class in summer school. So we'll see some of that.
"I think our admission's staff doesn't look at that as anything odd. It's kind of standard. If our admissions department looked at something negatively, the NCAA probably would also. There is legitimacy when the students are taking the classes at their high schools.
"The grey area comes when students do the correspondence stuff, like the online schools. It's probably 4 to 5 years ago where you'd see a little bit of that. I think the NCAA has cracked down on some of those schools. They're making them prove their legitimacy."
Kane says Illinois has higher academic standards than some schools. For instance, the NCAA Clearinghouse doesn't just accept a core curriculum that has a sufficient grade point average. It must also accept each core course as legitimate. If Illinois accepts the course, in most cases so will the Clearinghouse.
"We have to show every homework assignment the student's turned in, all their correspondence with their teachers, all their test scores. So you're getting a stack of paperwork from the school to prove that this is a legitimate course. If we can see that, then I think everyone understands it is a legitimate course."
Prep schools used to be a viable alternative for borderline student-athletes. If they didn't qualify to enroll in college directly out of high school, they could take a year of prep school courses to improve their grade point averages. Those benefits are now limited.
"The new NCAA rules that were established a couple years ago only allow one core unit of class beyond their regular high school graduation. When you used to hear about schools sending kids to prep schools, that's kind of become obsolete. It doesn't really function the way it used to."
However, a prep school can be useful to help a student improve his ACT and/or SAT scores.
"A student can look at improving his test score as much as he wants. That's one reason why students go to prep school. We also have students who improve their overall abilities like writing skills.
"I think it is coming at most schools, that if a student can show that they're progressively improving their grades, that's certainly something that admissions at any university would take into consideration. It's by no means a guarantee, if you send a student to a prep school, they're gonna become a qualifier or be able to be admitted to a school. But that would be a situation where a student would take one core unit and try to improve a test score.
"If the issue is the test, our admissions office looks at students holistically. They're looking at GPA's, they're looking at test scores and each subscore in that test. They're looking at high school class rank, they're looking at the rigor of the classes students take at their high schools, they're looking at the statements they write.
"They gauge their admissions on all students and not just student-athletes. If the test score is the problem with a student, that's where the prep school would help. If it's the student's high school GPA, you're not necessarily going to be able to do much with that."
In part three, Kane talks about her role with new freshmen.
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