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Higher Education: A Right or Privilege for Intercollegiate Student-Athletes?

by on July 28, 2009


by Dr. Deborah Stroman

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Get Real! That’s my kind response to the critics of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) recent academic reform policy that eliminates the minimum SAT and ACT scores for admission. This well-thought out and crafted course of action finally gives colleges the academic freedom and independence to do what they do best – make decisions as to which students they want on their particular campus. Not the NCAA, the athletic leagues, or any other sport-related governing body has the right to tell an academic institution who is most deserving of the opportunity to sit in their classrooms and learn. Although our country promotes a spirit of education for all, the reality is that higher education is for the privileged. And those with the financial resources receive more access and resources. With a wink and a nod though, the student-athlete can oftentimes bypass this necessity if one possesses the talent to throw a tight spiral or shoot a silky-smooth jumper.

Historically, most universities have had the proud mission of educating citizens so that one could gain additional skills for the workforce to improve society. Unfortunately, an ivory tower mentality soon emerged across many campuses, which fostered an attitude of “you are not worthy.” This “education for the elite” thinking seemingly created a haven of knowledge mongers. Naaa-Na-Na-Na-Na! I have something you want and I am going to make it hard as heck for you to get it! Helping those less fortunate – no money, no access — became someone else’s issue. This separatism has now come to the forefront as these elite state and private institutions, which purport to focus on research and teaching young minds, are now confronted with freeing up space (at someone else’s expense) to educate a poorly prepared student-athlete. Now everyone wants to win the big games, get media exposure, and improve fundraising to build the next library and add technological advances on campus. They need superb student-athletes to make that happen. The production from the gifted pianist, sculptor, and newspaper editor just won’t pay the bills. With highly competitive admission standards, many of these institutions have now had to construct various exception policies to provide admission to those whose standardized test scores would mean an almost automatic denial. With the removal of test scores as a major factor for admission, the universities now have the mandate to admit whomever they want to join their academic fellowship. I have no problem with their attempt to create and advance diversity on campus. In fact, I applaud these institutions for giving the student-athlete a chance. Welcome to the real world.

However, I do take issue with these same institutions and academics sneering their noses at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or other centers of higher education that have mandates or specific missions to serve those less-fortunate and less-prepared for higher education. This altruistic concern can be misconstrued and ridiculed by the Academic Progress Rate (APR) bean counters and ivory tower hecklers though. The APR was instituted by the NCAA to monitor how effectively athletic departments are focusing on the scholastic development of its student-athletes by monitoring eligibility. Those who sit on high forget the objective of these schools to admit those academically challenged students and often judge and compare these colleges to their own peer group. If you can look down on others, then you can make yourself feel real good. Commonly, these student-athletes who attend HBCUs come from low-income homes, one-parent families and marginal high schools. The odds are stacked against them, but they choose to seek the benefits that higher education can afford them.

Now all universities should not be allowed to get off the hook with academic clustering though. Requiring or directing student-athletes to majors that fit best with sport practices and competition versus their own interest and competency is immoral. (It should be of no surprise that student-athletes would want to study sport-related subjects if they spend at least 20 hours a week and most of their life focusing on their body and its performance. Hello!) Gerald Gurney, president-elect of the more than 1,000-member National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics and senior associate athletics director at the University of Oklahoma, has stated that the rule change will only create an environment for colleges to further enroll ill-equipped student-athletes. If the marginal student-athlete is admitted for whatever reason, it is important that the university have a proper support structure in place that best provides a winning-platform to achieve on and off the playing field. This support should include consistent communication between the family, coaches, administrators, and faculty. Some would argue that the big-time schools fail in this regard because the coaches have too much power and influence. Hogwash! I believe that “applied knowledge is power” so the coaches need not back up or off, but rather the families, administrators, and faculty need to step up. They should familiarize themselves with the real keys to the game of life and become a part of the solution. Having the courage to confront seems to be missing on many of these campuses with miserable graduation rates and academic scandals. Falling through the cracks should not be an option for a student-athlete under the university’s care. The emphasis on student-athlete leadership training is super, but it is imperative to add student-athlete transition counseling to help them adjust to life after their career. The attraction of intercollegiate athletics is not going away. The marketing and administration of intercollegiate sport is a multimillion-dollar industry that requires new blood each and every year.

It is no wonder that most student-athletes seek higher education. The chance of a significant professional financial contract is highly unlikely, most still want to grow up with their peers who are moving on to college, they enjoy working out and developing their skills against better competition, and they want to learn more to prepare them for their life after competition. Their ability to perform and showcase their gift should not be held against them. Student-athletes offer college campuses a unique perspective and exciting entertainment, which enhances the diversity of the community, and quite possibly its financial coffers as well. Their overall graduation rate is higher than the general student body, which speaks to the student-athlete’s discipline and ability to focus when the pressure is on. Yes, higher education is a privilege. However, open admission or enrollment is a step in the right direction to take the pressure off of using standardized tests that only predict first-year performance and not graduation. The institutions that cheat are still going to cheat. Giving universities more control over their admissions is not going to increase or decrease that fact. The change is only a positive and long-overdue admission rule to respect reality and assist institutions in their most-noble purpose of serving all in our society through research, service and teaching.

Dr. Debby Stroman is a faculty member of the Sport Administration specialization of the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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