Four things to help your student-athlete earn a degree

Graduate with yellow tassel
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“We were lucky enough to be able to flip the script and use football to benefit us. Not a lot of people have been able to do that, because their whole goal was come in and go pro. NFL or bust. A lot of these guys will end up not getting a degree. They won’t end up with a lot of things. The cost for them ends up going through the roof. We all have a lot of costs in what we did, but we got a lot of good benefits out of it also. We’re all getting our Master’s degrees. We’ve all got undergrad degrees from a top institution. I double-majored. He (points to his teammate) has a business degree. He (points to his other teammate) has got a degree in economics. We all used football as an avenue, as a benefit in terms of getting an education and getting all the things that we need because, we all saw that football is not always going to be there for us.” – Anonymous survey participant

Balancing school and competitive college sports does not have to be an either/or proposition. In 2015, I spoke with 40 football players from the power five conferences about their experiences as elite athletes. All have since graduated. Among them, 20 walk-on athletes maintained an average GPA of 3.7. Here are four key points that helped them to maintain that balance.

Foster academic identities and motivations. Parents and other loved ones play an important role in the lives of student-athletes, particularly as it pertains to how they are introduced to, become involved in, and develop a commitment to sports. Despite the numerous ways in which coaches, peers and others may praise them for their athletic prowess, student-athletes’ families must counterbalance this by positively reinforcing academic performance.  

The literature on student-athletes regularly addresses balancing complex roles and identities as one of their greatest challenges. Further, academic performance is only significantly influenced by academic motivation. Participants in my dissertation study were high-achieving students who developed strong academic identities long before arriving on campus. Regardless of how tired they were or how many hours of practice they had in high school, their parents demanded the same commitment to their coursework. By the time they got to college, scholastic achievement had become a part of their self-identity and something they were committed to on their own.  

Many of them credited this to the high academic expectations in their household. Thus, parents of talented athletes should become actively involved in their academic lives, both before and during college. It is imperative that academic success be prioritized over athletic success in the home, because the opposite will almost always be the case outside of the home.

Prioritize academics over athletics. The prioritization of academics over athletics should continue as student-athletes and their families navigate the college choice process. Specifically, student-athletes should view going to college more as an opportunity to learn than to play. The NFL and NBA draft fewer than two percent of college athletes each year; the other 98% must be adequately prepared to find employment elsewhere. Accordingly, it is important student-athletes attend a university that is best suited to develop them holistically, rather than the one that appears to be the most promising pathway to a professional sport career.  

Because the recruitment process can be deceptive, Shaun Harper provides a set of questions that may help student-athletes and their families assess whether or not an institution is the right fit: What is the graduation rate for your team? Besides the few who got drafted, what are recent graduates doing? Will you support my interest in spending a semester abroad and doing a summer internship in my field? What will happen to me if I don’t get drafted? How prepared will I be for a career in my field? Can you provide me specific examples of ways you encourage academic success and the holistic development of your players?

Make informed decisions. Based on the reports of the 40 men in this study, student-athletes should temper their expectations of what the student-athlete experience would be like. Common misconceptions include how glamorous big-time football seemed in high school relative to how physically and mentally tough and grueling it became in college. They should also examine the allocation of playing and practice time, particularly for scholarship and walk-on athletes.  

Though they expected football to be tough, it was not until they arrived that the revenue-generating athletes understood exactly how challenging their sport commitments would be and how little time football would leave for everything else. Some participants admitted that had they known then what they know about what it takes to make it on the field, they may have thought twice about playing.

To circumvent surprises and mitigate these transitional issues and regrets, student-athletes should not only anticipate coaches overselling their programs, but also seek insight from the older players on the team who can best reveal how demanding being on the team will be. Ideally, student-athletes and their families should be most interested in college and universities where athletic personnel encourage and support players getting involved in aspects of campus life outside of sports.  

Get involved in campus life. Finally, as early as their freshmen year, student-athletes should have honest conversations with themselves about their particular sets of circumstances, how they came to be on the roster of a revenue-generating athletic team, and most importantly, what they hope to get out of college?  

Whether it was for a free education or the chance to go pro, the athletes identified helping their families out financially as the core of their motivations. Again, as the chances of landing a lucrative professional sport contract are highly unlikely, student-athletes ought to resist the temptation to sacrifice the developmental aspects of college to commit entirely to sport and become engaged inside and outside of the classroom. 

Highly engaged students learn more, earn higher GPAs, and develop a wider array of transferable skills that make them more likely to graduate from college and be competitive candidates for employment and graduate study. Though difficult to do with their myriad time constraints, student-athletes ought to strategically take advantage of the clubs, activities, and experiences outside of sports that align with their professional goals.  

Collin D Williams Jr PhD is an award-winning author, researcher and consultant based in South Florida. Connect with him here

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