Top Athletics Programs, Many Students Major inEligibility

At Top Athletics ProgramsMany Students Major inEligibility

Contents

1. WIDESPREAD BUT VARIED2. OVERBLOWN CONCERN?Full Text

Listen American Accent Australian Accent British Accent

ATHLETICS

WHEN THE University of Oregon Ducks and the Florida State University Seminoles met on New Year’s Day in the first college-football playoff game, the two teams had more in common than dominance on the gridiron and a place in sports history.

They also had an academic similarity: On each team, about one-third of the players majored in social sciences, a multidisciplinary liberal-arts major.

At both institutions, only about 3 percent of all students graduate with bachelor’s degrees in general social sciences. That means that Ducks and Seminoles football players are roughly 10 times as likely as their peers to be pursuing this general-studies major.

Coincidence? Unlikely.

The Chronicle analyzed the majors of athletes at 17 of the 25 universities whose football teams made the first-ever playoff rankings, in October. (The eight other universities declined to provide information or failed to respond to public-records requests.) At almost every institution, we found athletes clustered in a small number of majors.

Of course, clustering is no surprise. Ask a few random students at any Division I college, and they’ll be able to name the “jock major” there. But the clustering can be stark. At its most extreme, it illuminates the central tension of college sports–the push/pull between academics and athletics.

At the University of Arizona, for example, 23 percent of all athletes major in general studies, another broad liberal-arts degree, which accounts for just 3 percent of all undergraduates. (We’re comparing the overall number of students who graduate in a discipline to the smaller number of athletes currently majoring in that discipline, not a perfect comparison but the most feasible with available data.) As in most of the athletics departments The Chronicle analyzed, football players are especially likely to cluster in certain majors: 34 percent of Arizona’s football players are seeking degrees in general studies.

Clustering raises questions about the status of college athletes. As they have increasingly called for compensation, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and colleges themselves have doubled down on the image of the “scholar athlete” and the notion that a free education is more than fair recompense. But with a third of the football players at Oregon, Florida State, and Arizona in general-studies majors–and other athletes clustered in majors that may be better for their practice schedules than for their eventual careers–some experts question the worth of such degrees.

“We have to ask ourselves, What is the long-term prospect of the student-athlete?,” says Peter Finley, an associate professor of sport management at Nova Southeastern University, who has studied academic clustering among athletes. What is the logical outcome of the general-studies degree?”

The answer, he says, is that some athletes are “basically majoring in eligibility and little else.”

WIDESPREAD BUT VARIED

Most investigations of athletes’ academic clustering–defined, in a 1987 study on the topic, as 25 percent or more of the studentson a single team in the same major–focus on the revenue-generating sports of football and men’s basketball. But The Chronicle’s analysis found clustering in nearly every sport and across genders.

At the University of Alabama, home of the country’s top-ranked football team, there was actually little clustering among football players. The most popular major among them, general studies, accounted for just 13 percent of the players, well below the clustering cutoff.

But 35 percent of the players on the men’s baseball team, which barely cracked the top 30 in the national rankings, are studying exercise science, a common major among athletes at several universities in our analysis. Half of all women’s softball players at Alabama are also exercise-science majors.

At Mississippi State University, clustering spans the entire athletics department. Half of all athletes, male and female, are pursuing just four majors: kinesiology, business administration, human sciences, and biological sciences. Those programsgraduate just 20 percent of all undergraduates.

Clemson University, on the other hand, exemplifies how clustering can be specific to both sport and gender. One-quarter of women’s cross-country athletes, 29 percent of women’s soccer players, and 31 percent of women’s basketball players at Clemson are majoring in health sciences.

On the men’s side at Clemson, health sciences isn’t the most popular major in a single sport. But the department of parks, recreation, and tourism management–the website declares that its majors “study fun”–is quite popular. The department claims one-quarter of all football players, 29 percent of men’s baseball players, and 36 percent of men’s basketball players. But it graduates just 3 percent of all undergraduates.

Clustering doesn’t always involve a general-studies major. At Duke University, the men’s swimming-and-diving programexhibited the most pronounced clustering of any team in our analysis, but hardly anyone could make the case that those athletes take the easy way out. Ten out of 14 swimmers–71 percent–are majoring in some kind of engineering.

Compare data collected in 2003 with the new numbers, and you’ll find that clustering has deepened over the past decade.

In 2003, The Chronicle found, 14 percent of Oregon football players were studying pre-business. This year, 22 percent of team members are in that major, which isn’t even the most popular one. Social sciences, which didn’t register as a top major in 2003, now enrolls 29 percent of the football players.

The same trend can be seen at Florida State, where the proportion of football players in general social science has soared, from 13 percent in 2003 to 34 percent this year.

Mr. Finley has also found that clustering increases over an athlete’s time in college.

“When these folks arrived on campus, they had dreams of majoring in things from education to finance to you name it,” he says of his study of football players at Virginia Tech from 2000 to 2009. “And then over time–and far, far more for the minorities than the white players–they just migrate to the one clustered major. That left us with some real concern about how much free will was being exercised by the student-athlete.”

Why has clustering grown more entrenched over time? Mr. Finley and Brian Davis, who was associate athletic director for football student services at the University of Texas at Austin for 16 years before being dismissed in June, place some blame on an unlikely target: the NCAA’s stricter eligibility requirements, which went into effect in 2003.

Under the revised rules, in order to stay eligible for Division I athleticsstudents have to show adequate progress toward a degree at the end of each semester. Athletes must have completed 40 percent of the coursework needed for a degree by the beginning of their third year, 60 percent by the beginning of their fourth year, and 80 percent by the start of their fifth year.

“Prior to 2004, people in athletic academic-support roles could advise students to take some risk and to do more thorough exploration and to challenge themselves,” says Mr. Davis, who is now a consultant. But the NCAA’s updated academic-progress standards “make it nearly impossible for a student to run the risk of challenging themselves, because the consequences axe too dire.” The new requirements encourages coaches and, by proxy, academic advisers, to “find the path of least resistance on your campus,” says Mr. Finley.

What’s more, the standards can make clustering look worse than it really is, according to Oregon’s head of academic services for athletes.

Some Oregon football players who appear to be majoring in social science may be planning to switch to biology or business, says Steve Stolp, executive director of the John E. Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes, a $42-million facility at Oregon.

Officials at Florida State and Arizona also note that athletes who declare their intention to major in social science or general studies may have other plans down the line. In the meantime, declaring those majors makes it easier to meet the degree-progress requirements.

When the academic achievements of athletes don’t stack up to expectations, people like Mr. Davis and Mr. Stolp–and their legions of academic-support staff members–often take the blame.

In some cases, that blame may be justified. Academic counselors were knowing participants in the scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They helped to perpetuate a system of “paper classes,” which never met and were directed entirely by an administrative assistant in the department of African and African-American studies, according to a comprehensive report released in October.

OVERBLOWN CONCERN?

Given such obvious fraud, is clustering really a problem? Some academic advisers argue that concern over athletes’ majors is overblown.

“When we talk about clustering, I think public perception is that it’s an easy major where you don’t have to do that much work and the classes are easy,” says Brian Evans, senior associate athletics director for student-athlete academic services at Utah State University. “But whatever that major may be, it’s a duly accepted major by the regents of the institution. They still have to meet all of the metrics to graduate.”

Academic-support professionals are quick to point out that not all clustering puts students into general-studies or other multidisciplinary majors. Indeed, many athletes cluster in majors that seem to align with their sports interests, such as kinesiology and sport management.

Still, hardly anyone will dispute that some proportion of college athletes choose majors with NCAA eligibility–and their already-busy schedules–in mind. “We’re just kidding ourselves that they’re only practicing 20 hours per week,” Mr. Finley says.

He suggests a radical, but rational, solution: Allow athletes to take fewer credits during the five years when they are eligible to play, and to use their scholarships to complete their degrees once they’re done competing.

“Maybe if we lower our expectation of courses per semester,” Mr. Finley says, “we would come out better in the long term.”

Florida State players warm up before a November game. About a third of the students on the team are majoring in “general social sciences.”

~~~~~~~~

By JONAH NEWMAN

At Top Athletics ProgramsMany Students Major inEligibility

Contents

1. WIDESPREAD BUT VARIED2. OVERBLOWN CONCERN?Full Text

Listen American Accent Australian Accent British Accent

ATHLETICS

WHEN THE University of Oregon Ducks and the Florida State University Seminoles met on New Year’s Day in the first college-football playoff game, the two teams had more in common than dominance on the gridiron and a place in sports history.

They also had an academic similarity: On each team, about one-third of the players majored in social sciences, a multidisciplinary liberal-arts major.

At both institutions, only about 3 percent of all students graduate with bachelor’s degrees in general social sciences. That means that Ducks and Seminoles football players are roughly 10 times as likely as their peers to be pursuing this general-studies major.

Coincidence? Unlikely.

The Chronicle analyzed the majors of athletes at 17 of the 25 universities whose football teams made the first-ever playoff rankings, in October. (The eight other universities declined to provide information or failed to respond to public-records requests.) At almost every institution, we found athletes clustered in a small number of majors.

Of course, clustering is no surprise. Ask a few random students at any Division I college, and they’ll be able to name the “jock major” there. But the clustering can be stark. At its most extreme, it illuminates the central tension of college sports–the push/pull between academics and athletics.

At the University of Arizona, for example, 23 percent of all athletes major in general studies, another broad liberal-arts degree, which accounts for just 3 percent of all undergraduates. (We’re comparing the overall number of students who graduate in a discipline to the smaller number of athletes currently majoring in that discipline, not a perfect comparison but the most feasible with available data.) As in most of the athletics departments The Chronicle analyzed, football players are especially likely to cluster in certain majors: 34 percent of Arizona’s football players are seeking degrees in general studies.

Clustering raises questions about the status of college athletes. As they have increasingly called for compensation, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and colleges themselves have doubled down on the image of the “scholar athlete” and the notion that a free education is more than fair recompense. But with a third of the football players at Oregon, Florida State, and Arizona in general-studies majors–and other athletes clustered in majors that may be better for their practice schedules than for their eventual careers–some experts question the worth of such degrees.

“We have to ask ourselves, What is the long-term prospect of the student-athlete?,” says Peter Finley, an associate professor of sport management at Nova Southeastern University, who has studied academic clustering among athletes. What is the logical outcome of the general-studies degree?”

The answer, he says, is that some athletes are “basically majoring in eligibility and little else.”

WIDESPREAD BUT VARIED

Most investigations of athletes’ academic clustering–defined, in a 1987 study on the topic, as 25 percent or more of the studentson a single team in the same major–focus on the revenue-generating sports of football and men’s basketball. But The Chronicle’s analysis found clustering in nearly every sport and across genders.

At the University of Alabama, home of the country’s top-ranked football team, there was actually little clustering among football players. The most popular major among them, general studies, accounted for just 13 percent of the players, well below the clustering cutoff.

But 35 percent of the players on the men’s baseball team, which barely cracked the top 30 in the national rankings, are studying exercise science, a common major among athletes at several universities in our analysis. Half of all women’s softball players at Alabama are also exercise-science majors.

At Mississippi State University, clustering spans the entire athletics department. Half of all athletes, male and female, are pursuing just four majors: kinesiology, business administration, human sciences, and biological sciences. Those programsgraduate just 20 percent of all undergraduates.

Clemson University, on the other hand, exemplifies how clustering can be specific to both sport and gender. One-quarter of women’s cross-country athletes, 29 percent of women’s soccer players, and 31 percent of women’s basketball players at Clemson are majoring in health sciences.

On the men’s side at Clemson, health sciences isn’t the most popular major in a single sport. But the department of parks, recreation, and tourism management–the website declares that its majors “study fun”–is quite popular. The department claims one-quarter of all football players, 29 percent of men’s baseball players, and 36 percent of men’s basketball players. But it graduates just 3 percent of all undergraduates.

Clustering doesn’t always involve a general-studies major. At Duke University, the men’s swimming-and-diving programexhibited the most pronounced clustering of any team in our analysis, but hardly anyone could make the case that those athletes take the easy way out. Ten out of 14 swimmers–71 percent–are majoring in some kind of engineering.

Compare data collected in 2003 with the new numbers, and you’ll find that clustering has deepened over the past decade.

In 2003, The Chronicle found, 14 percent of Oregon football players were studying pre-business. This year, 22 percent of team members are in that major, which isn’t even the most popular one. Social sciences, which didn’t register as a top major in 2003, now enrolls 29 percent of the football players.

The same trend can be seen at Florida State, where the proportion of football players in general social science has soared, from 13 percent in 2003 to 34 percent this year.

Mr. Finley has also found that clustering increases over an athlete’s time in college.

“When these folks arrived on campus, they had dreams of majoring in things from education to finance to you name it,” he says of his study of football players at Virginia Tech from 2000 to 2009. “And then over time–and far, far more for the minorities than the white players–they just migrate to the one clustered major. That left us with some real concern about how much free will was being exercised by the student-athlete.”

Why has clustering grown more entrenched over time? Mr. Finley and Brian Davis, who was associate athletic director for football student services at the University of Texas at Austin for 16 years before being dismissed in June, place some blame on an unlikely target: the NCAA’s stricter eligibility requirements, which went into effect in 2003.

Under the revised rules, in order to stay eligible for Division I athleticsstudents have to show adequate progress toward a degree at the end of each semester. Athletes must have completed 40 percent of the coursework needed for a degree by the beginning of their third year, 60 percent by the beginning of their fourth year, and 80 percent by the start of their fifth year.

“Prior to 2004, people in athletic academic-support roles could advise students to take some risk and to do more thorough exploration and to challenge themselves,” says Mr. Davis, who is now a consultant. But the NCAA’s updated academic-progress standards “make it nearly impossible for a student to run the risk of challenging themselves, because the consequences axe too dire.” The new requirements encourages coaches and, by proxy, academic advisers, to “find the path of least resistance on your campus,” says Mr. Finley.

What’s more, the standards can make clustering look worse than it really is, according to Oregon’s head of academic services for athletes.

Some Oregon football players who appear to be majoring in social science may be planning to switch to biology or business, says Steve Stolp, executive director of the John E. Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes, a $42-million facility at Oregon.

Officials at Florida State and Arizona also note that athletes who declare their intention to major in social science or general studies may have other plans down the line. In the meantime, declaring those majors makes it easier to meet the degree-progress requirements.

When the academic achievements of athletes don’t stack up to expectations, people like Mr. Davis and Mr. Stolp–and their legions of academic-support staff members–often take the blame.

In some cases, that blame may be justified. Academic counselors were knowing participants in the scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They helped to perpetuate a system of “paper classes,” which never met and were directed entirely by an administrative assistant in the department of African and African-American studies, according to a comprehensive report released in October.

OVERBLOWN CONCERN?

Given such obvious fraud, is clustering really a problem? Some academic advisers argue that concern over athletes’ majors is overblown.

“When we talk about clustering, I think public perception is that it’s an easy major where you don’t have to do that much work and the classes are easy,” says Brian Evans, senior associate athletics director for student-athlete academic services at Utah State University. “But whatever that major may be, it’s a duly accepted major by the regents of the institution. They still have to meet all of the metrics to graduate.”

Academic-support professionals are quick to point out that not all clustering puts students into general-studies or other multidisciplinary majors. Indeed, many athletes cluster in majors that seem to align with their sports interests, such as kinesiology and sport management.

Still, hardly anyone will dispute that some proportion of college athletes choose majors with NCAA eligibility–and their already-busy schedules–in mind. “We’re just kidding ourselves that they’re only practicing 20 hours per week,” Mr. Finley says.

He suggests a radical, but rational, solution: Allow athletes to take fewer credits during the five years when they are eligible to play, and to use their scholarships to complete their degrees once they’re done competing.

“Maybe if we lower our expectation of courses per semester,” Mr. Finley says, “we would come out better in the long term.”

Florida State players warm up before a November game. About a third of the students on the team are majoring in “general social sciences.”

~~~~~~~~

By JONAH NEWMAN

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