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College Athletics

College Students As Athletes

Current thought regarding academics and athletics in higher education focuses on the academic performances of student athletes. The emphasis of the research literature concerning intercollegiate athletics is on the compromised admissions and subsequent inferior academic performance of student athletes in the revenue-producing sports of football and men's basketball. Consequently, the nucleus of research literature centers on the academic integrity of higher education institutions that participate in NCAA Division IA intercollegiate athletics.

In gauging academic outcomes of student athletes, most research relies on traditional scholastic measures. Empirical research objectifies student athletes by focusing on board scores, grade point averages (GPAs), and graduation rates, and depicts student athletes participating in revenue-producing sports as weaker students in high school, poorer students in college, and graduating at lower rates than other students. University graduation rates have emerged as the prevailing assessment tool of student athletes' academic engagement and as a measure of performance outcomes.

Graduation Rates

The most comprehensive research of academic performance of student athletes is conducted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The annual Graduation Rates Report utilizes institutionally submitted information detailing student-athlete graduation rates, undergraduate enrollment data, university grade point averages, and admissions data. This report describes in quantitative terms the academic performance differences between student athletes and other students, between student athletes in revenue-producing sports and non-revenueproducing sports, between students and student athletes in Division I schools, and between student athletes and other students by ethnicity. Although the findings show few significant deviations from year to year within each institution, differences between institutions are startling. For example, in the twelve-member Southeastern Conference, six institutions graduated less than 53 percent of their student athletes in 1999. Several NCAA institutions graduated less than 20 percent of the student athletes that entered their university during the 1986–1987 academic years.

The percentages become more alarming when students are separated by ethnicity and sport. For example, while Division I student athletes graduate at an average rate of 58 percent rate, only 51 percent of football players and 43 percent of men's basketball players graduate. Sixty-three percent of Division I Caucasian student athletes graduate from college while Division I African-American student athletes graduate at a rate of 45 percent. Sixty percent of Division I Caucasian student athletes that participate in football, and 53 percent that participate in men's basketball, graduate, while only 43 percent of Division I African-American student athletes that participate in football, and 37 percent that participate in men's basketball, graduate from college. These data demonstrate that student athletes in revenue-producing sports (football and men's basketball), especially African-American student athletes, graduate at lower rates than other students (including other student athletes), raising serious cultural concerns and questions regarding the support systems and admissions policies for student athletes participating in revenue sports.

These data are not surprising given the criterion by which football and basketball student athletes are admitted to universities (see Table 1). Football and men's basketball student athletes have lower entering board scores and lower core high school GPAs than other student athletes. Thus, NCAA data supports the contention that student athletes participating in football and men's basketball are given preferential admissions treatment by institutions of higher learning–a substantial statistical advantage that has increased over time. Once admitted, student athletes underperform academically and concentrate in certain fields of study. However, despite lower entering board scores and underperformance, student athletes, overall, fare as well as other students in terms of graduation rates. Additionally, viewing student athletes collectively portrays a universal characterization that is not applicable to all sports. Student athletes in non-revenue-producing sports elevate the academic means for student athletes in football and men's basketball. In other words, student athletes participating in non-revenue-producing sports have vastly different academic profiles than football players and men's basketball players.

The NCAA reports include the graduation rates for all students as a gauge of institutional academic integrity. Although the focus of the report is on student-athletes graduation rates, student athletes are measured against the graduation rates of their peers. The literature contains a consistent theme of discontent toward the graduation rates of student athletes, yet student athletes collectively graduate at rates consistent with their classmates. The 1999 NCAA


Graduation Rates Report shows that over a four-year period, student athletes actually graduated at a higher rate (58%) than their peers (56%). In Division IA, the most competitive level of the NCAA, student athletes graduated at a rate of 58 percent, compared to a rate of 59 percent for all students at Division IA institutions. In Division I-AAA, the least competitive level of Division I intercollegiate athletics, student athletes graduated at a 58 percent rate, compared to 50 percent of all students at those institutions, and Division I-AA student athletes graduated at a rate of 57 percent, compared to 54 percent of all students at those institutions. Collectively, then, student athletes do better than their peers in terms of graduation rates. However, the data reveal two distinct groupings of student athletes when assessing academic success: students who participate in revenue sports and those who participate in non-revenue-producing sports.

Focusing on football and men's basketball student athletes illustrates significant differences compared to other students. There is a distinct difference between the graduation rates, core high school GPAs, and board scores of student athletes who participate in revenue-producing sports and non-revenue-producing sports. Football and men's basketball student athletes not only graduate at lower rates than other students, they are poorer students than other student athletes.

Several empirical studies have examined the differences in academic performance between football and men's basketball student athletes and nonathlete students. The intent of these studies was to identify disparities in academic performance. As previously discussed, the primary source of data was collected by the NCAA from institutionally submitted student academic records. Mean scores are subsequently compared between independent groups. The scope of these studies was extensive. For example, data collected for the NCAA reports include all Division IA student athletes.

In a year-long study conducted by the President's Commission of the NCAA, student athletes were found to "spend more time on sports than on studies" (Lederman 1988, p. A33). Comparisons were made between student athletes and nonparticipating students in time-consuming extracurricular activities. This study involved forty-two institutions in Division IA and it found that "Football and basketball players spend approximately thirty hours per week in the sports when they are in season–more time than they spend preparing for and attending class combined. They also report missing about two classes per week" (Lederman 1988, p. A34). The result of admissions exceptions and athletic demands is that student athletes in revenue-producing sports graduate at a significantly lower rate than other students. At many universities, faculty are tolerating the continuation of academic programs "in which, for every student who graduated, nine others did not" (Weistart, p. 17).

The question investigated by Michael Maloney and Robert McCormick in 1993 was, "To what extent does intercollegiate athletic participation affect academic success?" (p. 556). Utilizing data collected on all students at a Division IA university, Maloney and McCormick discovered that the average grade for student athletes was 2.379, which was significantly lower than the average grade for the student body, which was 2.681. Using regression equations for grade estimates by semester, Maloney and McCormick found that "there is a negative season effect in the revenue sports" (p. 566). Football players received significantly lower grades during the fall season than other students. Student-athlete grades during the off-season improve significantly and are slightly better than nonathletes. However, the increase during the off-season is not sufficient "to re-coup the losses during participation" (Maloney and McCormick, p. 566).


Universities are willing to compromise admissions criteria for athletic ability. The result has been institutional acceptance of lower graduation rates of student athletes who participate in revenue-producing sports. However, student athletes collectively graduate at rates comparable to their peers. The academic concession for athletic purposes amplifies an implicit institutional value on winning athletic contests in football and men's basketball, which are the primary users of "special admits" (students admitted with profiles significantly lower than the university average) and the teams with the lowest graduation rates.


ADLER, PATRICIA A., and ADLER, PETER. 1991. Backboards and Blackboards: College Athletes and Role Engulfment. New York: Columbia University Press.

ADLER, PETER, and ADLER, PATRICIA A. 1985. "From Idealism to Pragmatic Detachment: The Academic Performance of College Athletes." Sociology of Education 58 (4):241–250.

CRAMER, JEROME. 1986. "Winning or Learning? Athletics and Academics in America." Phi Delta Kappan 67 (9):K1–K8.

GURNEY, GERALD S., and STUART, DEBRA L. 1987. "Effects of Special Admission, Varsity Competition, and Sports on Freshman Student-Athletes' Academic Performance." Journal of College Student Personnel 28:298–305.

LANG, ERIC L., and ROSSI, ROBERT J. 1991. Understanding Academic Performance: 1987–88 National Study of Intercollegiate Athletes. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association convention (ERIC Document Reproduction Service, No. ED 331 880).

LEDERMAN, DAVID. 1988. "Players Spend More Time on Sports than on Studies, an NCAA Survey of Major College Athletes Finds. Chronicle of Higher Education 34:A33–A34.

LEDERMAN, DAVID. 1991. "College Athletes Graduate at Higher Rate than Other Students, But Men's Basketball Players Lag Far Behind, a Survey Finds. Chronicle of Higher Education 37 (28):A1, A38–A44.

MALONEY, MICHAEL T., and MCCORMICK, ROBERT E. 1993. "An Examination of the Role that Intercollegiate Athletic Participation Plays in Academic Achievement: Athletes' Feats in the Classroom." Journal of Human Resources 28 (3):555–570.

MCMILLEN, TOM. 1992. Out of Bounds. New York: Simon and Schuster.

NATIONAL COLLEGIATE ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION. 1988–1999. Official NCAA Graduation Rates Report. Overland Park, KS: National Collegiate Athletic Association.

SHULMAN, JAMES L., and BOWEN, WILLIAM G. 2001. The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

WEISTART, JOHN C. 1987. "College Sports Reform: Where Are the Faculty?" Academe 73 (4):12–17.


Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comEducation Encyclopedia: Classroom Management - Creating a Learning Environment to Association for Science Education (ASE)College Athletics - History Of Athletics In U.s. Colleges And Universities, Academic Support Systems For Athletes - THE ROLE AND SCOPE OF INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETICS IN U.S. COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES