Thursday, May 2, 2013

What Should a Student Athlete Graduate Look Like--Parts I & II

The NCAA defense of the concept of student athlete drives the immense efforts and progress college athletics has made over the last decade in increasing the graduation rates of student athletes. This increase has occurred in all areas and also led to pronounced increases in graduation rates of minority athletes as well as athletes in revenue sports. This progress is by no means perfect and requires constant pressure on schools and recruiting. The NCAA assumes that if a person graduates from the school, then the college has achieved the purpose that it sets for all entering students—a college graduate.

I want to discuss what this ideal of graduating from college looks like for a student athlete to see if it makes sense. Most media critics of the NCAA seem to assume that no student athletes graduate and that their degree is meaningless. This gives credence to their claims that the system is a “plantation” and based on “exploitation” because the student athlete, beyond playing what they love for four years, gains nothing of lasting value.

What should a graduated student athlete look like?

We need to remember that American higher education exists at many levels from private colleges to state comprehensive or open enrollment universities to R1 world-class research institutions. Each set of schools has different missions and different graduation rates. 

Students coming from well off homes and attending good private colleges may graduate at rates of 90 percent over a 6 year period while students coming from wildly diverse homes to open enrollment comprehensive state schools may graduate over six year period at 40 percent rates.  The NCAA covers all these rates, but reasonable rates across all levels suggest that strong state schools—which can be a proxy for NCAA colleges, will graduate students at the rate from 50-65%. This is a simple rate where you take the number of students who enter at a given year and divide it by the number who have graduated six years later. This simple division rate is what the federal government uses for its graduation rate numbers. This “target” rate drives the NCAA’s own efforts to graduate student athletes at the rates normal students graduate. The NCAA ideal would be to have student athletes graduate at an 80 percent rate.

This simple federal rate does not capture the complexity of student lives. While few students flunk out of the modern universities, many drop out from lack of money or lack of motivation or they transfer. Many drop out for a while and come back later.

Schools know simple 6-year averages do not capture the true reality especially at large schools serving diverse populations where the path to completing college can be nonlinear. This same issue impacts college athletes in a powerful way. Simply measuring the number of athletes who enter a class and those who graduate 6 years later tells you very little for two reasons.

1)   Many student athletes transfer and move on to graduate from other schools. In sports like men’s basketball the transfer rate can be over 30 percent. The federal rate misses this while NCAA numbers positively account for a transfer who graduates. 
2)   A very few student athletes leave to become professional athletes. This is not the norm but afflicts a few elite institutions. The effect is mitigated in baseball and football by rules made by professional teams who do not draft players until they have at least three years of college. Given the modern emphasis upon summer school classes and progress towards degree, a student athlete at the end of three years is often very close to graduation and well ensconced in a major. The NCAA does not penalize a school who leaves in good standing to play professional ball. 

As a membership organization the NCAA tries to respect the autonomy of different schools with different missions. The schools demand that autonomy. The NCAA gives schools immense freedom on their classes and graduation requirements but requires markers to ensure student athletes make reasonable progress toward graduation. This seeks to avoid past scandal where schools could go years without graduating their players.

What Graduates Should Know

Let’s get down and dirty and ask what a college graduate should possess and whether a graduated student athletes possess this. I believe we want to see several outcomes from any college graduate:

1)            They can read, write and reason. This is the bottom line of college, and many fine state universities face high school populations who possess real deficits in their ability to read and comprehend advanced prose, or reason and express it in writing. 

This miscarried outcome of modern high school education wounds the capacity of many college freshmen to reason or write clearly. Universities around the country have scaled down introductory writing and expanded writing requirements to adapt to this shortfall bringing students up to higher writing and reasoning levels. The reading and writing ultimately are means to a deeper end, the trained capacity to reason about problems.

2)            Students know basic math and can deploy sensible math including statistics skills to understand the world around them and use it to budget their lives and understand the realities of business and government. This remains the most fundamental failure of modern American education. Universities around the country have scaled down math requirements deal with the mathmatically illiterate populations they get from high schools. With the exception of technical professions that require strong mathematical literacy, modern higher education struggles to secure reasonable proficiency in applied math or statistics or even spread sheet math required by so much of modern life. Colleges strive for this but are floundering in achieving it for all their students.

3)            Reading, writing and math literacy—sound familiar? These should provide the basis for a college student to enter a major—a selected area where a student masters a field of knowledge and can solve problems within it using the technical and language based skills of the field. Many majors such as sociology, my own political science, anthropology, English literature, history etc. teach a student to reason about issues and integrate reading and analysis, but not necessarily practical mathematics, to engage serious problems. 

None of these majors guarantees a job or job preparation

Many social sciences and humanities rank very low on some the job preparation scales. Good majors provide the chance for students to become educated individuals capable of thinking through issues, reasoning about them, communicating their reasoning and writing about them. These skills contribute to multiple career and life paths.  Some majors such as economics, applied math, or modern empirical psychology provide a level of mathematical and analytical competence that can be deployed in many professional paths that differ from the reasoning and analysis of many social sciences and humanities.

4)           Professional competence that prepares students to leave school and enter into a professional career path. This is a more rare outcome, and the vast majority of college students do not pursue this route. Students, however, who enter engineering programs, science programs or information science or computer science for example can achieve this as they can in applied humanities such as design or art or theater programs.  Business schools offer undergraduate degrees but with the exception of accounting, most of the “skills” tend to be softer and lead to less efficacious reasoning outcomes than anticipated.

I think any student athlete who graduates as a true student must meet categories 1 through 3 at least—in this they would join the vast majority of American undergraduates.

Graduating from college is no guarantee of a job, and this applies to students athletes as well as most college graduates. The modern economy has made clear that getting a job is much harder than graduating from college, and many colleges are struggling to connect career preparation with traditional university generalist education. One of the major changes in higher education in the last twenty years has been the increasing importance for experience based learning of internships, extra-curricular activities or service learning or in experience based labs and exercises

We also have to remember the baseline entry level will shape the baseline of the graduates. The exact level of skill and exacting rigor and reasoning capacity may be tied to the mission of the university and level of commitment by the student body at large including student athletes. I don't’ expect the quality of knowledge and skill on average of many state college open admission students to match that of an elite private student graduate, but I do expect it to match strong standards of writing, reasoning and competence needed by business and life paths.

The vast majority of student athletes graduate at rates comparable or above similarly situated populations at their universities. This has been the great unheralded success of the NCAA and college athletics over the last twenty years. 

Graduating surveys support that graduating student athletes possess comparable levels of skills in the first three areas to their peers. Few university graduates master the professional path. It is even rarer to master the professional path given how hard it is for student athletes to get the advanced class requirements given their travel schedules.

I also want to acknowledge the real challenge that colleges face in bringing in a number of special admits each year to play athletics. Many of them are minority athletes from low social economic status backgrounds. Many come from broken urban or rural high schools and have not received the resource investment or education to be prepared for college level classes.

These special admits are admitted in clear knowledge that the admitted student does not fit the academic profile of regularly admitted students. These special admitted students will need strong academic and personal support the first two years to become a viable college students with their reading, reasoning analytic, math and class room skills.

These students come in identifying as athletes and aspiring to become professionals. Their reading levels may hover around 10th grade and they have grown up seeing themselves as academic failures and athletic successes. The amazing thing is that with strong support from staff, a strategic academic plan over two years and relentless pressure from coaches linking their ability to play to their performance in the classroom, the vast majority of these special admits can grow into viable academic students as well as athletic students

Colleges are now graduating minority student athletes at record high levels after twenty years of sustained effort and making it in coaches’ interests to get athletes to class and move towards degrees. I don’t want to romanticize this, a large number of schools still need to bring up the graduating level of their minority basketball and football players.

The key lies in strong investment in academic and social support for this development and unremitting coaching support. The NCAA reforms are all aimed at changing coaches’ incentives to put more effort into pushing academics and invest in robust academic support.

The Broader Case for Student Athletes

Here I want to make a case about what college athletics can also achieve. Many students learn the most in their internships, extra-curriculars or service learning or in experience based labs and exercises.  I would make the case that student athlete graduates possess not only the three academic dimensions but have gained other vital capacities that will stand them in good stead for life and careers.

Here are four vital skill sets that student athletes graduates often have gained.

1)   Goal setting, self-discipline and time-management are inbred into the process of being a successful athletic student.
2)   Cooperation, self-sacrifice and team coordination and commitment are ingrained in athletic team competition.
3)   Sophisticated pattern recognition of situations that develop in real time. Athletes must master complicated patterns of play and real time opposition and understand, integrate and deploy this perceptual skill.
4)  Taking responsibility and making decisions that have real time consequences based upon the pattern recognition while under intense stress. This real world acclimation to deploying knowledge and judgment under competitive stress infuses all athletic activity.

The data on the cognitive and emotional attributes of athletes supports the maturing of student athletes in these areas. I found one of my greatest hopes and frustrations was getting students who are athletes to understand how these athletic driven attributes transfer to the academic classroom and to the life they will face after college. When young student athletes figure this out, their lives change profoundly. 

I cannot emphasize enough how much this second set of attributes depends upon a high and moral quality of coaching, the type that the recent Rutger's scandal illuminates what should not happen. 

I believe that if the student athlete graduates from college and if the combined endeavor of the athlete and the college have achieved three of the four outcomes above, then colleges have done justice to the student athletes and vice versa.

I also believe that the value added attributes generated from athletic participation enrich and deepen the quality of the person who graduates from college.

No comments:

Post a Comment