Williams was a member of the 2005 men’s basketball national championship team and left North Carolina after one year to enter the 2005 NBA Draft. After years of summer school and some classes during the season, and studying both after practice and on the road, Williams completed his degree in July.
“I knew it would be a long journey,” he said. “But the closer I got the more excited I became. I wanted to finish my degree.”
The Board of Trustees approved an initiative from Cunningham and Chancellor Carol Folt called Complete Carolina at its July meeting. The program guarantees student-athletes who leave UNC in good academic standing an equivalent scholarship — including tuition, fees and room and board — to return to UNC and finish a degree at any point in the future. Currently, a student must have a 2.0 grade point average and a certain number of credit hours passed to be in good academic standing.
“When we admit any student we want them to complete their education,” Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham said. “But for this subset, student-athletes, someone in athletics invited them to the University. It’s an obligation to encourage them to finish their degree.”
The program also offers specialized academic advising and career counseling.
“What we’re trying to do is make it easier to connect,” said Lowry Caudill, chairman of the Board of Trustees. “This program will make it easier from an accessibility and awareness standpoint.”
The initiative was announced following the McCants said he remained eligible to play during the 2004-05 championship season because he was steered to take classes where his grade relied on a single paper. Several of his former teammates released a statement rejecting his claim.
Student-athletes have returned to the University to finish their degree in the past, and the NCAA has offered a degree completion program with scholarships for more than 10 years, Cunningham said. The Athletic Department hopes to encourage more student-athletes to return with the formal program, which has been in the works for more than a year, he said.
“We have had a program for student-athletes to come back and finish their degree for many years. We have student-athletes who have done that,” Caudill said. “What this is is a formalization of the program — and an enhancement.”
Williams said guaranteeing financial assistance makes it more possible, especially for those who have several years of courses left to complete.
The program is funded through the Athletic Department with most scholarship support from the Rams Club and additional funds from the general operating budget, Cunningham said. It will fund as many scholarships as possible.
Each year there are approximately 750 to 800 student-athletes on campus, Steve Kirschner, spokesman for the athletic department, said in an email. Kirschner said UNC has a 67 percent four-year federal graduation rate for student-athletes and an 86 percent graduation success rate, a statistic published by the NCAA which measures the proportion of college athletes on athletic scholarships that graduate within six years.
Tyler Zeller, who graduated in 2012 before he was drafted, said his mom made him promise to finish his degree, even if he left school early, because basketball can’t last forever.
“If you’re given a great opportunity to play at the next level you have to take it,” Zeller said. “But then you have to go out of your way to come back.”