Friday, November 21, 2008

College athletes cluster majors at most schools

When the NCAA adopted new rules in 2003 intended to improve graduation rates of athletes, critics countered that under pressure to keep athletes progressing toward a degree, schools might cut academic corners to help the athletes stay eligible to play.

Teams now can lose scholarships and access to postseason play if enough athletes are not on track to receive a degree or do not graduate.

But giving athletes a more meaningful academic experience also was part of the new rules' intent, NCAA president Myles Brand told USA TODAY for a story in 2003. However, Syracuse University athlete Dylan Malagrino, who had headed the NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, expressed concern that "coaches and academic administrators in the athletic department might be strongly encouraging students to take easier majors or to choose a major and never switch."

Graduation rates have improved as the rules have phased in over the past few years. Whether that has been due to students taking easier majors has not been studied.

To study the extent to which athletes disproportionately group in particular majors, USA TODAY chose five sports, selected to give a mix along gender, revenue-generating and seasonal lines: football, baseball, softball and men's and women's basketball. USA TODAY reviewed media guides and school websites at 142 schools — the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) schools and 22 Division I schools with standout basketball teams over the past few years, based on USA TODAY coaches' poll rankings. The result: a list of about 9,300 upperclass athletes on the team rosters during the 2007-08 school year.


College athletes studies guided toward 'major in eligibility'

Steven Cline left Kansas State University last spring with memories of two years as a starting defensive lineman for a major-college football team. He left with a diploma, credits toward a master's degree and a place on the 2007 Big 12 Conference all-academic team.

He also left with regrets about accomplishing all of this by majoring in social sciences — a program that drew 34% of the football team's juniors and seniors last season, compared with about 4% of all juniors and seniors at Kansas State. Cline says he found not-so-demanding courses that helped him have success in the classroom and on the field but did little for his dream of becoming a veterinarian.

"I realize I just wasted all my efforts in high school and college to get a social science degree," says Cline, who adds he did poorly in biology as a freshman, then chose what an athletics academic adviser told him would be an easier path.

His experience reflects how the NCAA's toughening of academic requirements for athletes has helped create an environment in which they are more likely to graduate than other students — but also more likely to be clustered in programs without the academic demands most students face.

Some athletes say they have pursued — or have been steered to — degree programs that helped keep them eligible for sports but didn't prepare them for post-sports careers.

"A major in eligibility, with a minor in beating the system," says C. Keith Harrison, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida, where he is associate director of the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports.


Athletes' academic choices put advisers in tough balancing act

B. David Ridpath has a confession to make. As the athletics department's compliance director and liaison to academic services for athletes at Marshall from 1997 to 2001, he often told athletes to avoid tough majors if they wanted to play their sports.

"Academic advisers say that all the time," he says. "You'd do it in more subtle kinds of ways, but I have directly told kids myself, 'You can be in this major if you want to be, but if you want to play football, or want to play basketball, you may want to look at this major.' And that's what happens."

These days Ridpath is an assistant professor of sport administration at Ohio University and a member of the Drake Group, a national network of faculty members and others who advocate broad reform of college sports, particularly in terms of academic integrity.

"These kids are getting steered into these less rigorous majors, or majors with friendly faculty," Ridpath says. "I do admit I did it myself, and I'm ashamed of it, and I wish I'd never done it."

A USA TODAY study of the majors of juniors and seniors in football, men's basketball, women's basketball, baseball and softball at 142 of the NCAA's top-level schools shows athletes at many institutions clustering in certain majors, in some cases at rates highly disproportionate to those of all students.