A timeline of when The Lantern requested and received information from three universities regarding athletes academic performances. Credit: Denny Check | Managing Editor for Design

A timeline of when The Lantern requested and received information from three universities regarding athletes academic performances. Credit: Denny Check | Managing Editor for Design

This is the first article in a two-part series. The second article will focus on the data provided regarding the relationship between athletics and academics.

The performance of college athletes is often put on display under the bright lights of stadiums and gymnasiums. Information about these students’ performance in the classroom, though, is sometimes kept in the dark.

To evaluate the relationship between athletics and academics, The Lantern submitted public records requests to Ohio State seeking information about athletes’ GPAs and attendance rates, among other things. The university’s response included redacted columns of data and inconsistencies.

Though it was asked for 10 years of data, OSU only provided the average GPAs for each sports team for seven years, from 2009 to 2015. OSU initially also only provided Spring Semester data, although Autumn Semester data was later provided upon another request.

In a document containing average sports team GPAs that OSU provided to The Lantern, several columns in the tables were blacked out. These columns contained the number of players who fell within certain GPA ranges.

When The Lantern challenged this redaction, Director of Public Records Rob Moormann stood by OSU’s decision, and he said sharing the information would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that aims to protect the privacy rights of students.

“In combination with other available information, the redacted GPA data is linkable to specific students and would allow others to identify the student,” Moormann said in an email. “The redacted data is therefore consistent with FERPA’s definition for ‘personally identifiable information.’”

Frank LoMonte, lawyer and executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said he sees universities using and misinterpreting FERPA as a common practice when dealing with data sets.

“Years ago, the Department of Education issued some advice about releasing small numerical sets and how a very small numerical set could compromise FERPA privacy. But this is what they meant by that: Don’t release a small numerical set if that set itself gives away something confidential about an identifiable person,” LoMonte said in an email.

LoMonte went on to explain that if someone requesting information about students asked for an ethnicity breakdown of the data, and, hypothetically there were only two Latino students, people might be able to identify them if the information was made public, and thus the use of FERPA would be appropriate.

“But that’s all they meant: Don’t release the number if the number actually exposes confidential information from a student’s record,” LoMonte said. “The way that schools have sometimes interpreted this — particularly schools with very dumb lawyers or very obstructionist lawyers — is, ‘Don’t ever release any small numbers,’ which is not at all what the federal government said or could have intended.”

Chris Davey, an OSU spokesman, stood by OSU’s application of FERPA in this request.

“We have no interest in shielding records from the media. We do have an interest in protecting the privacy of our students not only because it is federal law, but because it is the right thing to do,” Davey said in an email.

He maintained that the shielded data could be used to identify certain students.

“We stand by our own lawyers’ interpretation of FERPA and maintain that redactions made to the released records were necessary to protect the privacy of students,” Davey added. “In combination with other available information, the redacted GPA data is linkable to specific students and would allow others to identify the student. The redacted data is completely consistent with FERPA’s definition for ‘personally identifiable information.’”

Despite the redaction of GPA ranges in OSU’s response to The Lantern, the university has a history of releasing such information to praise high-performing athletes.

An article released by the Department of Athletics in January 2009 about the success of the women’s soccer team states, “While one Buckeye obtained a perfect 4.0 for the quarter, another 12 Buckeyes had GPAs of 3.5 and a total of 22 players out of 31 on the academic roster or 71 percent had GPAs of at least 3.0.”

When asked about the discrepancy in the release of the information, Davey said, “The (article about women’s soccer) was written in the context of the team winning an academic award for 15 consecutive years. I don’t know the circumstances of the production of that story, but I suspect it would have been written with permission from the coach and the student-athletes.”

Additionally, OSU failed to provide data surrounding attendance rates of student-athletes, saying that it doesn’t track the information necessary to provide such data.

Public record request laws do not require organizations to create new records or conduct research when responding to requests.

However, OSU did fill the request surrounding “class checkers” for student-athlete attendance, saying the university does employ nine of these individuals, who are paid between $10 and $18 an hour.

After follow-up questions about the lack of attendance data, The Lantern was told that the university does not monitor every student-athlete, but there are certain circumstances where the Department of Athletics and the Student-Athlete Support Services Office chooses to monitor daily attendance for specific student-athletes, said Emily Caldwell, media relations manager with university communications.

“Reports of such attendance are immediately shared with the relevant coaching staff through a variety of communication methods. Because it is all handled on an individual basis, there is no single system used to track the data, and any information that does exist is protected by FERPA because in each case it relates to an individual student,” Caldwell told The Lantern in an email.

OSU provided an example of what the attendance data would look like in its follow-up response. This document blacked out the fields for student names, buildings and class information.

Discrepancies between universities

The Lantern sent the same public records request to the University of Michigan and Michigan State, which asked for the following data in a range over the past 10 years:

  • Average and median GPAs and number of credits for each sports team
  • The graduation rate of student-athletes by sports team
  • The average and median number of years it takes student-athletes to complete a degree program by sport
  • The average and median attendance rates by sport

Also requested were the five most popular majors for student-athletes, the number of academic coaches employed by the university and their salaries, the number of student tutors employed and their salaries, and, if applicable, the number of attendance checkers employed by the university and their salaries.

The University of Michigan denied The Lantern’s requests about GPAs, number of credits, years to complete a degree, the most common majors, and attendance, citing that it does not compile any of this information. The sole data it provided was the number and salary of student tutors.

Similar to OSU, the University of Michigan has articles touting athletes’ GPAs. An article published in July 2012 stated the women’s track and field team had an average GPA of 3.21. The University of Michigan also publicized its scholar-athlete awards that honor students who receive certain GPAs.

Michigan State University provided The Lantern with all of the information requested except for years taken to complete a degree and attendance rates because it does not compile this data. It does not employ attendance checkers, so that information was also not able to be provided.

OSU fulfilled The Lantern’s requests for common majors, salary and staffing information, credit hours, as well as requests noted throughout this article. The university said it does not keep records regarding how long it takes student-athletes to complete degrees. For data about graduation rates, OSU directed The Lantern to an NCAA resource that compiles information nationally for student-athletes.

Both University of Michigan and Michigan State also directed The Lantern to the NCAA resource about graduation success rates that OSU referenced.

The discrepancies between these universities’ filling of public-records requests are not uncommon.

LoMonte, with the Student Press Law Center, explained part of the problem is that the only way to resolve what people believe to be misuses of FERPA is typically to sue in a state court.

“The problem with that is that one state court is not bound by another’s, so you can get a favorable FERPA ruling in Arizona or Colorado and it means nothing to a university in Ohio,” he said in a phone interview. “They can just look the other way and pretend that case doesn’t exist, and they do.”

LoMonte also put some of the blame on the original language of the FERPA law.

“You can get penalized only if you overdisclose, not if you underdisclose,” he said. “And that is just a built-in flaw with the law.”

This series was made possible by the generosity of The Lantern and Ohio State alumna Patty Miller.