Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Education Case for Keeping Student Athletes in College I & II


I want to discuss why professors, college presidents and most coaches who care about teaching want the kids to stay in school for three to four years. I do not want this to become another polemic about one and done but rather a discussion of why and how college athletes uses a three to five year time horizon to transform athletes into student-athletes and into college educated graduates. This is a long one, so bear with me.

Take a hypothetical top recruit coming into a major university. If we focus pon the major revenue sports, statistically many of them are minorities, and many are academically “at risk.” This means that they have taken the NCAA required high school core but done it with minimum grades and usually have very low SAT or ACT scores. Often they come from high schools with problematic academic standards. The combination of disadvantaged social economic background and awful academic preparation means a very high percentage of the top recruited players in the revenue sports come to their colleges woefully underprepared as students. If you predicted their graduation rate based on their academic profile, it would hover below 20%. In reality, however, these young minority “at risk” athletes graduate from college at a higher rate than non-athlete minorities and match regular rates at many schools.

This occurs because the committed universities have figured out a multi-year process to help underprepared student athletes grow into viable and effective students. These young men and women regularly defy the statistical odds and graduate with reasonable educations, but it takes time, resources and commitment by players and coaches.

These elite young athletes identify at athletes first and often barely register on the “student” identification model. This matters because an individual’s identification as a student predicts very highly whether they will actually learn and graduate from college. We need to remember that this does not just affect student athletes. The identification as a student as a predictor of academic success applies to all students, and many undergraduates especially at large state schools come in not particularly committed to being students and often take two years to full change their identification and become serious students.

Most elite high school athletes primarily identify as athletes for good reason—they have been playing sports and being praised and rewarded for it since they were 9. Sports is the one area they excel. For many of them the classroom often remains a site of failure and disappointment.

Consequently one of the huge challenges for any student athlete is to learn to become a student and identify as a student. This requires mastering student skills even as they continue to devote 25-40 hours a week of their life to college athletics. Being from a disadvantaged and poor school amplifies this since many high-risk athletes have failed as students and been failed by their school systems. They have no reason to care and many reasons to fear and reject the classroom as humiliation and disappointment.

We need to remember, again, that many students take two years to really adapt to the shell shock of college, find their direction and commit to their studies. A very large number of students ease into student-hood their first two years by taking required but not particularly demanding classes. They change as they enter their majors at the end of their second years.

This process of becoming a real student as well as athlete takes several years, usually at least 2. This matches the intellectual and emotional developmental arc of many students.  At the beginning of year three many of the athletes realize they will not become professionals. It happens earlier for the kids from more middle class backgrounds or in Olympic sports since they have more social capital as students when they get to college or have fewer professional options.

Honestly during year 1 and part of 2 many underprepared athletes along with lots of other students do take standard core courses but not demanding courses. Some schools, but surprisingly few at major universities, have easy classes for parking student athletes. Most do not do this anymore. The key is to remember these young athletes are not yet prepared academically or emotionally—for that matter neither are many freshmen kids.

Academic support and planning ease them into classes and learning to be college students. The student-athletes gain some small victories, sometimes they discover they can be students and sometimes they discover passions to learn in areas like social work, justice administration, art, education or the oft maligned ethnic study programs. When it works, and it does more often than anyone credits, individuals discover new dreams and identities beyond being an athlete.  Student athletes often make a leap in their third year where they learn to become learners—the great advantage of the American education system.

Time horizons and coaches are critical to this process. Athletes are motivated at the beginning to play. The only way they can play is to stay eligible and make academic progress. Good coaches push, cajole and threaten to get players going to class and taking class seriously. The first two years can be hard on students, staff and coaches. The best college teams have coaches who monitor class and academic progress since eligibility and APR depends upon it.
The point to remember here is that the uneven growth from being an elite high school athlete to a college student takes time, motivation and support. The coach has to be an academic motivator because he or she is a teacher and he or she has self-interest in the athlete being a student. 

This link of academic progress to degree and getting to play keeps a lot of student athletes on track. It also explains why the move to minimize the time student athletes stay in school has such pernicious consequences on the education of student athletes.

Part II

The loss of a three or four year time horizon is what makes one and done so problematic from an academic perspective. The entire arc of becoming a student and succeeding as a student falls apart. This is not about the impact on the college game; I could care less. This is about the failure to treat the student-athlete as a real student.


Modern NCAA academic reforms, for all their limits, build upon this philosophy of pushing students over three to five years to make progress towards degree. Students must meet certain percentages of total classes towards degree at the end of each year; they must meet certain minimum grade standards and they must declare a major. In addition staying eligible and returning become critical markers for coaches who seek to protect scholarships in the APR rate. The data overwhelming suggests that meeting these targets tremendously increases the chance for a student to both get an education with a major and to graduate.

It depends like most undergraduate education upon an unfolding four year pattern of learning and maturing on the part of the students.

A vague and uneasy peace protects this time line and balance in baseball and football. In baseball athletes can be drafted out of high school, but if they choose to go to college, MLB leaves the athlete alone for three years. Football has achieved the same equilibrium. The NFL will not draft a player until three years in college and since many players redshirt, by the end of junior years many football players have already amassed enough credits to graduate or be very near. The same is true in baseball. Both sports make ample use of summer classes to move students towards graduation and buffer against academic setbacks. Recent reforms push the baseball players to an even more aggressive progress towards degree. In a surprising high degree of cases students who leave after three or four years have graduated or lie within striking distance when they return to college.

MLB and NFL are not saints. Both benefit from the three or four year stay because the development of skills and body in their sports takes longer to mature. At the same time their window permits athletes to become students.

The problem with basketball is that 18 year olds are ready to play professional basketball. They possess the physical strength and skill sets to play what passes for modern NBA basketball. The can and have gone right from high school to the NBA. 

The NBA has absolutely no incentive to align with the three or four year time horizon that enables colleges to motivate and actually educate and graduate student athletes. Their kids are ready. One year is gravy because it gives professional teams an extra year to assess future players. But neither union nor the league will change their 19 year-old rule that leads talented NBA ready athletes to seek 9 months of basketball finishing school at college.

The number of athletes affected by this three and four-year horizon in baseball and football is small, maybe 1.6 to 2.5% of the graduating classes. But it covers high impact players who leave as graduates or near graduates. Modern athletic programs push students to take summer classes both to maintain progress towards degree and also provide a balance for summer workouts. The combination of summer school, strong motivation to stay eligible, and year round academic support gets many students towards graduation.

As a teacher who cares about student athletes and believes in them as students, I know we take huge academic risks with some of our at risk student athletes. I know it takes strong academic support and a team to help them get through the first rough two years of overcoming their academic and cultural lack of preparation. They gain a more complex and rich life. They may end up as professional athletes. But that career lasts on the average of 3-5 years, so at the age of 26, even the elite of the elite will have finished their avocation of sports. They will move on to new lives and careers that their education will help support.
I do not subscribe to the defeatist logic of let them major in football or basketball because this makes a mockery of any attempt to prepare them for life after sports. Even if they choose to enter the 100 billion dollar a year sports industry, they still need to write, think analytically, work with numbers and graphs and a host of other academic skills that advance their own understandings and prepare them for life off the field, even if they stay in sports industry or education. To the extent that the revenue sports bring to college many minorities and underprivileged students who would not make it to college except for sports, it takes on a social justice dimension. The university permits athletes to play what they love and gains from this, but the university promises to the students and their parents or guardians that it will do its best to provide an education and graduation opportunity for the student athlete. This takes the 3-5 year arc but also means students need to master skills and attributes beyond their sport prowess.

This is the ideal that sustains the NCAA. It is not easy and can easily be corrupted for the ultra-elite athletes. In fact the life can be hell on students and academic staff and coaches, but it generates a type of person who has played out their love with passion and excelled. This peculiar American model does not throw students onto the athletic ash heap at the age of 25 as they do in Europe and other counties but gives student athletes enough education and discipline to start another career when sports leaves them behind.

The one and done player remains just that a player and an athlete. Hanging out at college and doing sport finishing school fails the ideal and the motive of intercollegiate athletics.  In 6-9 month horizon of the one and done student, students have no incentive to go to class, to learn, to get grades or even to stay eligible beyond a three-month period. The 6 month or at best 16 month time horizon is just too short to move the individual to identify as a student and succeed in the classroom. It is too short to permit individuals to learn to learn which is the great accomplishment of American undergraduate education. That is why one and done really qualifies as academic fraud.

It makes no legal or moral sense for the NCAA to try and require student athletes to commit for two or three years in college basketball. Nor does it make a lot of moral sense to prohibit anyone they think might leave after one or two years from going to college.

The NCAA does not have many morally palatable ways to protect its academic ideal in this situation and especially given the self-interest of the NBA and its union. I have two small suggestions that might help on the margins.
First, the NCAA can expedite the rule that entering freshman have higher academic standards in grades and score. The new proposals calls for a year of academic residency for at risk students who fall within a certain range of academic unpreparedness.  The new and unprepared student athletes would have limited practices and no play or travel for their first year. They would concentrate on academics. They would still have four years of eligibility.

If we were really serious, we would simply go back to freshmen ineligibility for basketball period. This would solve a multitude of problems with a clear bright line rule.

If the NCAA required a year of academic residence for at risk students, it would catch a fair number of one and done athletes. Those of us who have sat through admission hearings and processes know they are often very special admits who sit at the borderlands of any credible case for admittance to college. Remember they have had no reason to study or work hard academically because their high school and AAU world has praised and supported them for their basketball skill and pro future. This would eliminate a number of the one and dones because a high percentage would be required to sit for a year of academic residency. They would simply bypass college all together.

Second, the NCAA could actually make years in residence a criteria of how it evaluates the APR. Right now if a student athlete goes pro before graduation, as long as they are eligible, then it does not count against a team’s APR and does not affect its scholarships or championship eligibility. This enables Kentucky to lose six freshmen and sophomores and still have a sterling APR.

The NCAA could impose an APR penalty point upon any school that had a player leave for the pros before finishing the equivalency of three years of class. Players can transfer but if they leave for the pros before meeting a number of credits, then a penalty would be assessed.This approach is no guarantee but it would create some disincentives for coaches to overload upon one and done. It would at least acknowledge that getting students to class and learning something does count in the NCAA calculation of value. I have no doubt Calipari and his ilk will figure out ways to game this since that breed of coach does not care about getting their students educated, but we need to change their incentives and limit their entry points.

These may not be the answer but they point to how we might start with the academic mission and move from there rather than starting with the game and tournament and move backward to academics.

The point of the game here is pushing to keep student athletes in school makes strong educational sense. It flows from taking seriously the student in student athlete, and it is one of the few answers to cynics. 






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