I have long been uneasy with college sports, especially NCAA Division I "big money" sports (primarily football and basketball). I taught at a Div I school for a bit years ago, and it seemed to me then that the "student-athletes" weren't getting an education so much as playing in a minor league that happened to be located on a college campus. Those that make it big often leave before they finish their degree - to take one example, Ben Roethlisberger never finished at Miami of Ohio, a school that prides itself on academic excellence. And those that don't make the pro draft - which is a lot of college players - have long had degree-completion rates well below the national average.
Plenty of ink has been spilled about how the system of college sports is broken, and there are lots of ideas floating around about how to fix it - spin the sports off into "real" professional minor leagues, allow the players to be paid for their time, there is no shortage of possible fixes. I'm not qualified to express judgement on most of these solutions, except to agree with the general consensus that the system is pretty well busted.
That said, many universities do deserve credit in one area: putting serious resources into the academic success of their athletes. The "Forrest Gump" image - the "student" who is radically academically unqualified but who gets passed through on underwater basket weaving and "gut" courses because they're good for the team - stings in higher ed. When there are accusations of going academically soft on athletes, they are taken very seriously, if for no other reason than good PR.
So universities have started getting serious about helping their student-athletes actually succeed in real classes. Today's Chronicle has an article on the subject, which now leads some to ask: if the athletes are getting all this support from "learning specialists", why not the rest of our students? Do student-athletes deserve more support and a better chance at success than your average non-scholarship, non-athletic student?
It's a fair question, especially in an era of tight university budgets and pressure on public universities to increase their graduation rates. My own university, now launching a major student success initiative, is looking at this closely. While we are a Division I school, we don't have a football team, our basketball team makes the NCAA tournament about once in a generation, and our sports programs are generally not seen as revenue-generators to a significant degree. Nevertheless, our athletics department has achieved a remarkable success: it was announced yesterday that for nearly eight years running, the average GPA of student-athletes on our campus has been over 3.0, well above the campus average.
So the folks leading the charge on broader student success are naturally asking, what are we doing with athletes that we could or should be doing with everybody? As I listened to the announcement, I couldn't help wondering if maybe we are (at least in part) putting the cart before the horse. Maybe it's not the case that student-athletes at our school succeed academically because we work hard to give them extra help (though there certainly is some of that). Maybe their academic success comes from the fact that they're student-athletes.
This is a novel concept - we're used to that image of the "dumb jock" who couldn't get into college any other way except that he's good at a sport. But at universities like mine, with no football and largely non-revenue sports, we don't need to recruit those students. Yes, we will go out and get students who are good soccer players, good softball players, good baseball or volleyball players. Few of them will come to us because they envision a pro career, just as many of our students who are good at playing in a marching band won't go on to become professional musicians. So some of our correlation between athletics and academic success is just a lack of the selection bias problem that may plague some of the "big time" schools.
But I think there's another cause to the correlation, one that runs from athletics to success. These students have had to take the time to become genuinely good at their sports - good enough to play on a Division I team, even to get recruited to it. That takes discipline. Moreover, they've gotten to that level not because they think they're going to make a career out of it, but simply for the love of the game. That takes inner motivation - the desire to do something for its own sake.
As any college professor will tell you, discipline and motivation will go a long way towards success in the classroom. Without discipline, even intellectually gifted students become bored and do sub-par work. Without motivation, students at all levels won't put in the effort.
Student-athletes have already proved, in one arena, that they possess these traits in greater measure than the rest of the population. Sports is not the only way to do this, of course - this is why colleges love to recruit students who have become really good at something, almost anything really - music, poetry, art, dance, public speaking, organizing service projects, you name it. These students have what it takes to succeed.
So while it's good to focus resources on academically underprepared athletes, they already have a leg up on many of their non-athletic peers - the students who didn't really pursue anything in high school, who went to college because it was expected or because it seemed like the thing to do, or because they like the idea of a four (or five, or six) year party. Given their predilections, getting athletes to succeed is relatively easy. It's reaching some of the rest of our students that's going to be the real challenge.