Since the NCAA began disclosing graduation rates in 2001, Temple student-athletes have earned their degrees at a higher rate than members of the regular student body.
Reactions to the report were mixed – the athletics department lauded the triumph of academic support while some outside critics said the numbers were flawed.
The 2004 Graduation-Rates Report, released in October, found that 64 percent of student-athletes graduated within six years, compared to 54 percent of the student body.
“[The result of the report] makes me feel good because it goes against the whole notion that student-athletes are dumb jocks,” said Kenyatta Rush, academic coordinator for Temple’s student-athletes. “Though that stereotype has been disproven over and over, we continue to need to educate people, so it’s good that article was published. Sometimes people need to see cold, hard facts.”
The report’s findings are not new. Nationally, student-athletes have graduated at a higher rate than non-athletes every year since 1986. Temple student-athletes reached a high in 2003, when 76 percent entering the 1996-97 academic year graduated. Only 47 percent of non-athletes had graduated in that same period.
Walter Holliday, director of academic support for student-athletes, said the difference is historically one of access. Athletes are subject to constant supervision, he said, while it is more difficult for regular student advisors to keep track of the hundreds of students they are responsible for.
The University has three full-time academic advisors to aid 545 student athletes – about one advisor per 180 students. Holliday estimated a single advisor in the college of liberal arts is responsible for about 800 students.
“We’re kind of like parents on campus,” Holliday said. “Other students can say, ‘Yeah Dad, I’m doing great [in class].’ They’ll never have to walk into their advising office once during the semester. Then they’ll fail four classes.”
Sociology professor Kevin Delaney said the difference had less to do with sports and more to do with students being involved in campus life.
“When people are involved in extracurricular activities, they graduate at a higher rate,” Delaney said. “So whether or not they are athletes, they’re enmeshed in college culture and they’re kept track of. People are paying attention to them, whereas the general graduation rates for all students include those who might come for a year and lose interest.”
Critics insist graduation rates are not just misleading, but they are insufficient when analyzing academic proficiency.
“We want schools to reveal what the graduation rates represent,” said professor Linda Bensel-Meyers, who teaches at the University of Denver and heads The Drake Group, a collection of college professors seeking to return academic integrity to college athletics. While teaching at the University of Tennessee, Bensel-Meyers brought a series of academic violations by the school’s athletics department to the attention of the NCAA.
“That’s not to say you should disclose individual student records – though some have said that, I would argue that’s not the point – but identify the professors in the courses taken and what grades are given out.”
Rush said he sees no problem with putting an emphasis on graduation rates.
“It’s a decent denominator because the whole goal in coming to a university is to finish,” he said.
Because of her experience at Tennessee that occurred throughout the 90s, Bensel-Meyers said she is wary of academic support for student-athletes.
“Academic support is where the problems really began at Tennessee,” she said. “The athletics department essentially took over academic support.”
But when things go wrong for a program academically, Holliday said, academic support often unfairly receives the brunt of the blame.
“Athletics is highly visible,” Holliday said. “Kids fail out, it’s front-page news. It’s on ESPN [if] the starting center failed out. Now, I’m not saying its right, but if the No. 1 honors law student in the country fails out of Temple, it flies under the radar.”
Temple student-athletes compare favorably with student-athletes at similar institutions. Though Rutgers-New Brunswick boasted a 72 percent graduation rate among its student body, its student-athletes graduated at 63 percent, about the same rate as Temple’s.
Rutgers lists five academic advisors for 920 student-athletes on the athletics department’s Web site, not including the director or assistant director of academic support. The University of Pittsburgh, which graduated just 51 percent of its student-athletes between 1997-2004, does not have any information on academic support accessible through its athletics Web site.
Schools are not required to release test scores for incoming freshmen, but Rush acknowledged that they are typically lower than those of the normal student body. According to Temple’s Incoming Freshman Admission Policy, students classified as strong applicants have SAT scores between 1050 and 1150 and are in the top 40 percent of their high school class.
Some critics of college athletics have labeled this difference between student and student-athlete academic requirements the “credentials gap.” The credentials gap explains why student-athletes at powerhouse programs like the University of Michigan have high graduation rates relative to other schools, while their graduation rates are low compared to the school’s student body, Delaney said.
Programs like Proposition 48, under which incoming student-athletes with low scores sit out their first year to improve their grades, have been both highly controversial and beneficial to many athletes.
Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at California-Berkeley, has written a number of essays on the effects of Prop. 48 on student-athletes. He claims that the program teaches athletes that education can be adjusted to make way for their athletic abilities.
Others argue Prop. 48’s success stories give credence to evidence that test scores are culturally biased and grades are warped by poor high school curricula.
“If a student-athlete, or any student from that background, can come to the university and do well their first year, they have shown you what you wanted to know – that they could do well in college,” Delaney said. “They’ve sort of proven the numbers wrong.”
Those students will be tested by new NCAA eligibility rules that take effect this year. Student-athletes are required to complete a minimum percentage of credits toward their degrees by the beginning of each school year. Those minimums were raised for student-athletes entering after 2003.
Prior to 2003, student-athletes had to complete 25 percent of their credits by their third year, 50 percent by the fourth year and 75 percent by the fifth year. Now students must complete 40 percent by their third year, 60 by the fourth and 80 by the fifth.
Temple’s academic support staff is preparing to monitor students more closely to keep them eligible under the new requirements. But overall, Holliday said he expected the effect on individual students to be minimal.
“In general, students are going to do what you ask them to do,” Holliday said. “When we had the 25-50-75 [rule], kids were making 25-50-75, and they’ll eventually make 40-60-80.”
The NCAA supervises those figures, but when it comes to egregious eligibility and compliance violations, the governing body is far from vigilant, Bensel-Meyers said. When she met with NCAA officials to disclose her findings at Tennessee, she was told to keep all the documentation she had brought as evidence because the university had to provide any evidence on its own.
“That’s an extreme example of the NCAA not being able, by its own policy, to open an investigation into a program,” she said. “They have to ask the institution if there are any violations, and of course the institution is going to say no.”
To avoid such violations, Holliday said, the athletics department puts an emphasis on monitoring.
“You’re exposed to a lot of monitoring and help,” said junior Antywane Robinson, a forward on the men’s basketball team. “At study hall, we’ve got tutors at will. We get plenty of people watching over us and one-on-one attention. Walt might walk in and out if he’s not doing anything, but we’re pretty focused always even if he’s not around.”
Peter Adler, a sociology professor at the University of Denver and co-author of Backboards and Blackboards, writes that such extensive monitoring can hinder a student-athlete’s mental maturation. Delaney sees the logic in that argument.
If athletics departments treat student-athletes as if they cannot make their own academic decisions, Delaney said, they might be conditioned into an inability to make any independent choices at all. Students need to be empowered, he said, and academic support is the key to their empowerment.
Athletic programs have shown a willingness to change recently, with Vanderbilt realigning its entire athletic-academic system and Tennessee volunteering to be monitored by a university party, but Bensel-Meyers said most of the changes are only superficial alterations that have little institutional impact.
Holliday said he welcomes change if it means more advisors.
“We’re kind of handcuffed, because we can’t hire anyone from outside [due to NCAA restrictions],” Holliday said. “I would love to hire high school teachers and math teachers, but we pretty much have to go with students. I’m always on my soapbox saying we need more.”
Benjamin Watanabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.