Two weeks ago I was picking up a car at Enterprise Rental and had to talk to the manager. I thought I recognized him and asked his name. Sure enough, he had played defensive end for UW nine years ago, graduated and now managed this branch complete in white shirt and tie and spread sheet analysis. We talked awhile, and he mentioned how scared he had been arriving at UW as a highly recruited three star recruit-but with horrible SAT scores and miserable GPA. He spoke of how difficult and depressing the first two years had been learning to be a student and things like getting his first coat and tie and learning how to study and behave on the road. “It was hard, really hard, but I graduated. Now I’m on my way up in the company.” That was his summary.
By historical accident, college sports have become an agent of social justice on college campuses. In this discussion I will narrow my discussion to issues of minority access to colleges, but could just as easily have talked about the college athletics contributions surrounding women's access and achievement. Each year thirty to fifty young minority males who would normally not get accepted are admitted to colleges across the country as student athletes. All the algorithms predict that these minority males should fail. Yet six years later sixty to eighty percent of them graduate. Each year college athletics helps minority students who by all majors should fail in college.
Many state colleges can admit unprepared student athletes as a normal part of their mission. College athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds both from broken urban areas and poor barren rural areas come from underfunded and disorganized public schools. They have neither the social resources nor academic support to achieve the SAT/ACT scores or fluid literacy to get into good private or flagship state colleges.
90% of minority and white students from these class backgrounds will never graduate from college. Elite publics and privates have trace elements of non-Asian male minority students on campuses. The triage of American higher education requires high-standardized scores, high grade point averages and high quality essays. These schools traditionally have few minority males based upon the collapsed pipelines from high schools. The end result black male students represent 2.7% of the population at flagship state universities compared to 7% of school age population. Minority males graduate at the lowest rate of any groups in colleges.
Many of the black and other minority presences on campus derive from recruiting and stocking up high achieving minority students. These schools seldom recruit minorities from seriously disadvantaged backgrounds get to these schools. College athletics enters the scene in recruiting and trying to educate minority from ill prepared backgrounds who would be consigned to the waste heap by normal admission andoutreach approaches.
The few students from these backgrounds arrive at college struggling to master the textbooks, unused to the workloads and behind from the first day. Without strong support they fail at astronomical rates and have the highest non-graduation rates of any groups in college.
Paradoxically college athletics has figured out a way to recruit, train and graduate these students. On many of these campuses athletes comprise very high percentage of the minority males on that campus In addition these destined to fail students graduate at rates far beyond anything that would be predicted by their academic profiles.
The difficulty in finding minority male students prepared to succeed academically is well documented. What is often ignored is that in a number of flagship state and private schools student athletes can make up as high as twenty to thirty percent of minority males in groups such as African American, Hispanic or Pacific Islander populations. This far exceeds the population ratios for the student body.
This reflects the collapse of the social and academic pipelines to these schools of prepared minority males. This is not an ideal situation, and no one in their right minds wants minority males investing immense amounts of effort into athletes rather than academics. Many males do not have the support structure to build opportunities for sustained academic success and mentoring. They find success, identity and most importantly engaged adults in sports. They claw their way out through sports, and colleges who accept them have the opportunity and obligation to not just train them as athletes but as real students. Modern NCAA rules require prospective student athletes to take a defined list of college core classes with minimum grades to even be considered for scholarships. A desire to play college ball is linked to getting a high school education. Colleges have an ethical obligation to invest in them so that student athletes leave school not as ex-athletes without a future, but as educated young men who will contribute to their own and their society’s future.
The relatively high graduation rates of admitted minority males who would not normally get into college or succeed remain one of the unsung achievements and lessons of college athletics. The average black athlete graduates at a 17 percent higher rate than black regular students. Black student athletes still graduate at 68% rate versus 87% rates with white athletes, but the rate has gone up considerably as the reforms of 2003-4 start to take effect. At the same time minority male student athletes especially in basketball still tend to graduate at lower rates than anticipated.
Most student athletes come into college identifying as athletes. They have excelled as athletes and received praise and success as athletes. A very high percentage of student athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds expect to become professional athletes. 70 percent of the basketball players in Division II expect to become professionals when they enroll as freshmen!
Left on their own as athletes without significant social and academic support, these minority athletes will fail at high rates. The much lower graduation rates at Division I championship schools reflects the importance of economic investment in support. Student athletes get in, but these schools do not have the resources of the will to invest in significant academic and social support to help the young athletes develop as students and change their identity focus. To be blunt, admitting disadvantaged student athletes without serious investment in academic and social support amounts to exploitation—they will predictably fail at very high rates.
For underprepared and disadvantaged student athletes to succeed two processes have to occur. First, they have to come to a new understanding of themselves as students. This requires getting the basic skills and confidence to compete in the same classroom with well-prepared peers. Second, the students need the academic and social support to get over the first two very hard years where they struggle like fish out of water.
Athletics achieves this by leveraging the student athlete’s passion to play sports just as new rules require high school athletes to take better classes and get better grades. Under NCAA rules the student must make progress towards degree by taking a set of classes in percentage increments, passing the classes and finding a degree over a three-year arc. Unless student athletes meet these rules they cannot play. These formal rules will only really work if the coaches strongly, let me emphasize strongly, push classroom attendance and education. If athletes experience lost playing time or practice time tied to academic attendances and performance, they will show up.
The first two years are critical for support. The student athletes grapple with succeeding in alien classrooms where the stakes and standards are higher than they have ever experienced. The introduction to academic classes needs to occur slowly.
We need to be honest here. Most of these athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds have failed as students. Academic classrooms are places of anguish and failure for them. They face an alien culture that many of their middle class students take for granted. So most successful programs start out student athletes in prep classes to introduce them to the demands of modern college classrooms. They take a trajectory of classes for small successes. This slow preparation takes around two years to acclimate student athletes into functioning as students in the practiced way many middle class or successful working class kids take for granted.
Good academic support programs build in strong tutoring, study tables. This takes economic investment to ensure students master basic skills and confidence as students to compete in the classroom. If the system works, then in their junior years student athletes begin to identify as students also, but also begin to realize that they will not be professionals—although this confidence can be invincible when third string corner backs still believe they will be professionals some day.
The other huge lesson and advantage lies in the community and structure that surround athletes. In even off-season they work 30-40 hours a week on athletics. This surrounds them with a community of peers and adults. The structure gives them a purpose and leverages the purpose towards keeping the student focused when they face the chaotic, strange and seemingly hostile academic world of major universities.
This structure and community can be replicated for non-athlete students. Programs that succeed in educating students from disadvantaged backgrounds do so with programs that provide purpose, strong initial academic support and a community structure—the very attributes that college athletes provides. The data on increasing not only minority but also all student graduation rates builds upon community and support structures.
The academic and social support is not perfect and can be abused. But they help compensate for the very heavy and required work load that the athletic scholarship burdens
All the support in the world will not matter if coaches do not bring push connecting learning in the classroom to desire to play. Most college coaches are teaching at college because they believe in helping educate the student athletes as well as coaching sports and winning. In addition the coaches and universities now have strong incentives to push for academic progress because off potential lost scholarships and worse lost opportunity to play in NCAA tournaments or bowl games.
I am not naive. A high percentage of minority athletes end up in majors that look like dead ends, especially often maligned ethnic studies. These claims often do injustice do many ethnic study programs that have strong social science and humanities components. But it is important to remember that most college students end up in majors that do not prepare them for jobs. This is not the point of most social sciences and humanities; they prepare students to read with understanding, write well and think critically. They provide general adaptable cognitive frameworks for how to learn and master subjects in a wide variety of settings. All students from these backgrounds face short-term challenges in this job market.
The graduation rate of minority male student athletes has improved for the last several years reflecting consistently tighter and more aggressive academic reforms ranging from higher high school requirements to mandate progress to degree to new penalties for lower graduation rates that kept schools like Connecticut. The one spot that continues to resist reform efforts remains men’s basketball especially at mid major schools who use it to get tournament access. College basketball has by far the most corrupt feeder system, and the one and done mentality encourages less high school preparation, less investment in athletes once they arrive and leads to a culture of rampant transfers to gain playing time. Unfortunately transferring leads to lower GPA and a much lower probability of graduation. The roots of basketball sport are now so compromised and so many schools have so little money for academic support that I remain deeply pessimistic that the universities will be able to achieve the social justice possibilities in basketball that present themselves elsewhere.
This combination of purpose, support and structure can provide the context for academically and economically disadvantaged students to integrate in and succeed in quality academic settings. This stands as a success, paradox and challenge of college sports.