Sunday, May 5, 2013

What Should a Student Athlete Graduate Look Like Part II

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.

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