Poor Grades Aside, Athletes Get Into College on a $399 Diploma
November 27, 2005
University of Tennessees Demetrice Morley graduated from University High with a grade point average of 2.75, precisely what he wound up needing to qualify for a scholarship
By the end of his junior year at Miami Killian High School, Morley flashed the speed, size and talent of a top college football prospect. His classroom performance, however, failed to match his athletic skills.
He received three Fs that year and had a 2.09 grade point average in his core courses, giving him little hope of qualifying for a scholarship under National Collegiate Athletic Association guidelines.
In December of his senior year, Morley led Killian to the 2004 state title while taking a full course load. He also took seven courses at University High School, a local correspondence school, scoring all As and Bs. He graduated that December, not from Killian but from University High. His grade point average in his core courses was 2.75, precisely what he wound up needing to qualify for a scholarship.
Morley, now a freshman defensive back for the University of Tennessee, was one of at least 28 athletes who polished their grades at University High in the last two years.
The New York Times identified 14 who had signed with 11 Division I football programs: Auburn, Central Florida, Colorado State, Florida, Florida State, Florida International, Rutgers, South Carolina State, South Florida, Tennessee and Temple.
Damaso Munoz, a graduate of University High School on Rt 1, south Miami, Florida, played football for Rutgers University (NJ)
University High, which has no classes and no educational accreditation, appears to have offered the players little more than a speedy academic makeover.
The schools program illustrates that even as the N.C.A.A. presses for academic reforms, its loopholes are quickly recognized and exploited.
Athletes who graduated from University High acknowledged that they learned little there, but were grateful that it enabled them to qualify for college scholarships.
Lorenzo Ferguson, a second-year defensive back at Auburn, said he left Miami Southridge High School for University High, where after one month he had raised his average to 2.6 from 2.0.
"You take each course you failed in ninth or 10th grade," he said. "If it was applied math, you do them on the packets they give you. It didnt take that long. The answers were basically in the book."
The N.C.A.A. has allowed students to use correspondence school courses to meet eligibility requirements since 2000. That year, the N.C.A.A. also shifted the power to determine which classes count as core courses to high school administrators. In doing so, it essentially left schools to determine their own legitimacy.
"Were not the educational accreditation police," Diane Dickman, the N.C.A.A.s managing director for membership services, said in September.
But last week, Myles Brand, president of the N.C.A.A., said he would form a group to examine issues involving correspondence courses and high school credentials. Brand acted partly in response to a letter sent on Nov. 2 from the Southeastern Conference that highlighted cases similar to Morleys and Fergusons.
The man who founded University High School and owned it until last year, Stanley J. Simmons, served 10 months in a federal prison camp from 1989 to 1990 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud for his involvement with a college diploma mill in Arizona. Among the activities Simmons acknowledged in court documents were awarding degrees without academic achievement and awarding degrees based on studies he was unqualified to evaluate.
In interviews last week, he said he should never have pleaded guilty and that he operated legitimate correspondence schools for adults.
In 2004, Simmons sold University High to Michael R. Kinney, its director. Kinney, 27, who was arrested on a marijuana possession charge in 2003 and is wanted on a bench warrant, declined to comment, despite requests by phone, fax and visits to his apartment.
Several University High graduates said they found the school through Antron Wright, a former XFL and Arena Football League player who is prominent in Miamis high school athletic circles. He is considered a savior by some players, but one principal has barred Wright from his building for luring athletes to a rival school and introducing them to University High.
Miami has ideal conditions for academic-athletic exploitation. It is fertile recruiting ground: 38 players from Dade County were on N.F.L. rosters at the start of the 2004 season, more than any other county. Also, Floridas public schools require an exit examination for graduation, but private schools have no such requirement, and operate under a law that prohibits any state regulation. That allows University High to operate essentially unsupervised.
Pat Herring, the interim admissions director at the University of Florida, looked into University High after admitting one of its graduates, Dane Guthrie, a former Killian tight end. "We found that University High School was kind of a storefront operation," Herring said. "It didnt seem to have much in the way of an academic program."
While Florida officials were discussing whether to allow Guthrie to remain, he transferred to Arizona State.
Other colleges that have admitted University High graduates say they know little about it.
Auburn admitted Ferguson in 2004 and a fellow University graduate, Ulysses Alexander, this year. "The bottom line is they were both qualifiers by the N.C.A.A.," said Mark Richard, a senior associate athletic director at Auburn.
A four-member academic panel at Tennessee admitted Morley after sending an athletic department official to Miami to investigate University High. Morley has thrived on the field at Tennessee, but Philip Simpson has stumbled at Temple.
Simpson, a standout quarterback at Southridge High, said Wright had met with him and his parents and offered a sure alternative from high school to college, telling him: "You either stay there and bust your behind and hope and pray that at the end you dont get short-handed. Or you can do this."
Simpson said his mother called the N.C.A.A. to check whether University High courses would be accepted. He said he graduated in three weeks by taking four classes, improving his average to 2.3 from 2.0.
He now says he lacks the educational skills for college. For a basic math class at Temple, Simpson said, he studied at least three hours every day, got help from tutors and met regularly with the professor. He still did not score higher than 53 out of 100 on any test.
A Quick Diploma
Promotional brochures say diplomas can be earned in four to six weeks, with open-book exams, no classes and no timed tests. A diploma costs $399, no matter how many courses.
In paperwork filed with the state of Florida, the school says it has six teachers. None of the schools graduates interviewed, however, mentioned dealing with anyone besides Kinney, the current owner, and none said they had received any personal instruction.
John M. McLeod, a Miami-Dade Community College educator, is identified as the University High principal on a letter welcoming new students. McLeod said he met Simmons in the 1970?s, but that he had no connection to University High. He said his signature had been copied.
"Ive never seen this letter," he said. "I know nothing about University High School."
Simmons said he did not know why McLeods signature was on the letter.
Former students said in interviews that courses consisted of picking up work packets from University High and completing them at home. Grades they received on the packets counted the same on their transcripts as a yearlong high school course.
"If it was history, they had the story with the questions right next to it," Simpson said. "They were one-page stories. It wasnt really hard."
University High says its textbooks are the Essential Series from Research and Education Association of Piscataway, N.J., but their publisher describes them as study guides.
To Some, a Second Chance
Simmons said that he opened University High School in 2000 to serve adults; and that the average age of about 400 current students is 36. Football players from public schools in poor neighborhoods began enrolling around March 2004, when University applied for membership to the N.C.A.A. Clearinghouse, which determines if a student is eligible and can qualify for a scholarship. Several players said Wright led them to University High.
Philip Simpson said that when he went to University to enroll, Kinney was expecting him because Wright had called. Ferguson and Simpson said they worked on their University High packets at Wrights apartment.
Wright, 30, could relate to talented athletes with academic struggles, some of the players said. A former star at Southridge and Palmetto High Schools in Miami, he did not attend a Division I-A university because of poor grades, local players and coaches said. He graduated from junior college, then played two years at Division I-AA Bethune-Cookman.
Wright later rooted himself in the Miami football community, serving as an assistant coach at three schools and as a substitute teacher at Dade County football powers. He developed a strong bond with his players.
"I thank God every time I step on the practice field for Tron," said Keyon Brooks, a former Killian player and University High graduate now playing for South Carolina State. "He got me here. He helped me succeed in life. I look at him as a role model."
Tavares Kendrick, a top-rated quarterback from Homestead High, credits Wright for helping him get to Florida International University, where he is a backup quarterback. Kendrick said his average improved to 3.0 from about 2.1 in about seven weeks by taking nine classes at University High.
"Antron is a great guy," he said. "He helps kids that have great talent but dont have the smarts for school."
Yet Wright is barred from Southridge, partly because he lured players to Killian and to University High. In January 2004, five football players left Southridge and later played crucial roles on Killians state title team.
"He cant come into my building," Carzell J. Morris, the principal at Southridge, said. "Just for the fact he comes in and takes my kids out. Kids that could probably make it if they werent looking for the easy way out."
By transferring to University High, students can bypass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which is mandatory for public school graduation, and focus on passing through the N.C.A.A. Clearinghouse.
N.C.A.A. minimum standards require the completion of 14 core courses. Grade-point average in those courses and standardized test scores are rated on a scale. Students with high averages can qualify with lower test scores and vice versa.
For example, after Morleys junior year at Killian, a computer program used to project eligibility showed him graduating with about a 2.1 G.P.A., meaning he would need at least a 960 on the SAT. At University, he raised his average to 2.75, so his 720 SAT score was exactly what he needed to qualify.
Doing Something About It
When Morley was preparing to enter college, Tennessee and the Southeastern Conference questioned his University High transcript. Brad Bertani, the associate athletic director for compliance at Tennessee, went to Miami to investigate.
Bertani, who met with Simmons for three hours, said he determined that Morley had done his own work. But Bertani refused to comment on University Highs curriculum.
"Theres all kinds of schooling out there, whether you think its legitimate or not," Bertani said. "Thats for the admissions people at each school to evaluate."
Tennessees research showed that University High School sent transcripts from 28 athletes to the N.C.A.A. Clearinghouse.
Morley, who played defensive back and returned kicks this season, did not respond to repeated attempts for comment by e-mail and through Tennessee officials. His mother, Felicia Henry, demanded to know who had told a reporter he had attended University High and said she knew nothing about the schools academics.
Morley took a full course load at Killian while playing football, along with seven other core courses half the N.C.A.A. minimum for a high school career at University. Transcripts obtained by The New York Times show he received four As and three Bs from University. At Killian, he received Cs in English all four years, but he got an A in classical literature from University. Grades like that helped his G.P.A. in core courses improve to 2.75 from 2.09 from August to December.