Plan to help up athlete graduation announced

by Tiff Clements

With workouts, weigh-ins and written exams, Jeremy Larson is a busy man.

The varsity wrestler and Spanish studies junior normally starts his day at 5:30 a.m. with ROTC training and a morning workout. Next, he attends classes and finishes the day with two to three hours of afternoon practice, followed by an evening of studying.

Larson said he did well in high school and felt as prepared as any other first-year student at the University. Still, he said, incoming student-athletes face unique scheduling challenges.

“It does put a lot of stress on your academics that first year,” Larson said. “After the first couple years you get the routine down.”

Helping student-athletes “get the routine down” by transitioning successfully into academic life and excelling in the classroom are the goals of a series of recommendations announced Friday by Provost Thomas Sullivan.

The final report of the Task Force on Academic Support and Performance for Student-Athletes offers five suggestions for improving the graduation rates and overall scholastic output of student-athletes.

The suggestions include: a standardized system for storing student-athlete academic information; summer transition programs for incoming students; increased access to academic programs that appeal most to student-athletes; better tracking of students who did not graduate but had nearly enough credits to do so and increased efforts to integrate athletics into the University community.

Sullivan said he and President Bob Bruininks have fully accepted the suggestions of the committee and are taking steps to implement them. He said he sees a direct link between academics and athletics.

“Success in the classroom is success on the playing field,” Sullivan said.

The two formed the task force more than a year ago as another facet of the University’s strategic positioning initiative.

Before making its recommendations, the committee studied academic profiles of 1,400 student-athletes from 1999 to 2002, including information about standardized test scores and high school class rank.

According to committee co-chair Mary Jo Kane, this information was used to determine whether students were likely to succeed even before their first semester at the University.

“We defined ‘at-risk’ in a very broad, comprehensive way,” she said. “A student was classified as at-risk if they were an entering high school student who had come in below the 50th percentile in his or her class rank or they had an ACT score of less than 20 or an SAT score of less than 940.”

Based on those criteria, the report classified 29.9 percent of student-athletes and 67 percent of University-identified student-athletes of color as at-risk.

According to a profile created by the Office of Admissions of all first-year students admitted to the University in fall 2006, on average, students were in the 85th percentile of their graduating class, had an ACT score of 26 and a SAT score of 1208.

Sullivan said the task force’s recommendations do not include admitting student-athletes with a stronger academic profile.

Instead of re-evaluating admission standards for things like test scores and high school rank, he said he’d rather focus on providing student-athletes with a strong academic experience once they arrive on campus.

“Those are predictors coming in,” Sullivan said. “But with all of our own experience in college, and in life, so much of it is motivation and attitude and the kind of structure you arrive in at an institution.”

Co-chairman of the task force Perry Leo said changes to University programs should focus on promoting first-semester success.

“We saw the importance of the first semester,” he said. “It’s clear that we need to do a good job, especially with the academically fragile people of preparing them for the first semester.”

According to the report, academic success correlated most strongly with five factors: ratio of credits attempted to credits completed first semester, ethnic origin, number of Cs first semester, number of Ws first semester and admitting college.

Leo said that since an academic scandal involving the athletics department eight years ago, barriers have been put in place to keep the worlds of athletics and academics separate.

“There have been many firewalls put up since 1999; many of those firewalls are excellent,” he said. “But I think the pendulum has swung in one direction pretty far, and I think that what we need to do is remind both the academic side of the University and the athletic side of the University that they are part of one University.”

Leo suggested increasing social interaction between coaches and faculty when allowed by University policy.

Athletics Director Joel Maturi said he is grateful for the task force’s report and his department will work to implement the suggestions.

“I’ve never known a coach who didn’t want to graduate a student-athlete,” he said. “As an institution and as an athletics department, we are going to jointly try to improve not only our graduation rates, but also our student-athlete experience.”