U athletics rank last in academics

by Karlee Weinmann

Student-athletes at the University aren’t making the grade, according to recent academic progress reports released by the NCAA.

The NCAA’s data concerning graduation rates, grade point average and academic progress within athletics programs at schools across the country landed the University at the bottom of Big Ten rankings.

The rankings have raised questions about whether the University adequately promotes academics among athletes. The overall student-athlete graduation rate, 67 percent, is low compared with the NCAA goal of graduating all athletes.

Athletics Director Joel Maturi recently signed to extend his tenure at the University at least three years. His new contract offers a stipend for athletes’ academic achievement, including possible bonuses of up to $170,000 per year, in part for upsurges in graduation rates and GPA.

Maturi has said athletes’ academic progress is of paramount importance to him and something he plans to focus on in coming years.

University sociology professor Doug Hartmann said the context of athletes’ academic performance should be considered.

“The graduation rate among athletes is actually higher than for nonathletes at the University,” he said. “The athletic-academic issue shifts the burden of attention on the athletes and focuses on them rather than the larger problem.”

Degree-seeking nonathletes at the University have a graduation rate of 56 percent, 11 percentage points below athletes, according to the NCAA’s most recently reported statistics, for 1999.

Hartmann, who sat on a committee dealing with student-athletes’ academic lives, said the pressure on student-athletes’ academic performance is familiar and expected – and that it spans across postsecondary institutions.

“There’s nothing else in the University that gets the attention that athletics gets,” he said, citing the disproportionate publicity for University athletics compared with academics.

With the construction of a new on-campus football stadium and continued emphasis on University sports, Hartmann said the University administration wants to use the publicity generated by athletics to further academic interests.

“They’re embracing (athletics) and using it for an educational mission (through raising money for) the institution,” he said. “Time will tell if that plan will work.”

The University’s partnership between athletics and academics has seen recent changes in leadership and programming.

Mark Nelson, in his second year as the director of the McNamara Academic Center for Student-Athletes, said the University has more resources and more athletes than other institutions. It’s progressing toward higher levels of academic success among athletes, he said.

The low NCAA academic ranking does not reflect as poorly on the program as it seems, Nelson said.

“We’re not happy to be at the bottom of the Big Ten, but we’re seriously looking at what we can do to change that,” he said.

The academic center offers life skills, learning enhancement and tutorial programs for student-athletes.

These programs, starting with a mandatory two-credit class for incoming first-year athletes, work to ease the transition into college for Division I athletes.

This year, Nelson worked to generate more money for the program and received administrative approval to add two academic counselors to his staff. Administrators also signed off on a $30,000 increase in the tutorial programs budget.

The amount set aside for tutors increased to $93,000.

The office is now staffed with seven academic counselors, four full-time learning specialists and about 35 subject-specific tutors for the roughly 750 University athletes.

About 200 athletes take advantage of the tutors, Nelson said.

“The vast majority of our student-athletes are very self-sufficient,” he said.

The Academic Progress Rate is the way the NCAA gauges universities’ academic progress.

A progress rate of 1,000, equivalent to a 100 percent graduation rate, is considered ideal. The NCAA-mandated minimum of 925 is equivalent to a 50 percent rate.

Schools are assessed on a team-by-team basis as well as cumulatively. Teams that don’t crack the 925 threshold may be penalized with loss of scholarships.

For the 2004-2005 academic year, football was the only University team to fall below the mark, with a progress rate of 918.

New progress rate data will be made public in the coming weeks.

The University of Wisconsin, a fellow Big Ten constituent, is known for academically oriented programs.

The Wisconsin athletics program boasts an overall progress rate of 960 and has seen only its football team dip below the 925 minimum, at 916.

Doug Tiedt, assistant athletics director for academic services at Wisconsin, said his school offers a host of opportunities for student-athletes to hone academic skills and stay successful.

Wisconsin employs five full-time advisers to serve more than 750 student-athletes, in addition to a life skills coordinator responsible for organizing programs for athletes.

The school’s athletics department mandates that each athlete must attend at least two life skills presentations, which center on topics like body image, violence and alcohol.

Wisconsin recently hired a tutorial coordinator to oversee tutorial programs and the 100-plus paid tutors to which athletes have access.

Four learning specialists provide academic support daily to struggling student-athletes needing extra assistance with basic study skills.

Tiedt said about 70 percent to 80 percent of Wisconsin student-athletes take advantage of tutorial programs at least occasionally. He said 300 to 400 of them use it consistently, with half using it regularly and one-third using programs as needed.

“Our program is more than functional,” he said. “There’s a lot of good stuff.”

Hartmann said that while it might seem the University of Minnesota is at a crossroads, forced to choose between enhancing athletics or improving scholastic achievement, it can have it both ways.

Hartmann points to Wisconsin, Northwestern and Stanford as model institutions.

Each of these schools, he said, has an outstanding academic reputation and consistently is among the top athletic performers.

Hartmann said there is a clear solution for unsatisfactory academic progress among athletes: bring in better students.

“We need to start taking steps in that direction, and we need to have that goal,” Hartmann said.