If former student-athletes have exhausted their eligibility and have yet to graduate from Ohio State, the Student-Athlete Support Services Office might be willing to pick up the tab.
In 1994, SASSO implemented the Outreach Education Program, which is now known as the National Consortium for Academic and Sports (NCAS) Degree Completion Program.
The DCP provides former student-athletes with academic and tuition support, helping them to complete their studies and obtain a degree.
“From (athletic director) Gene Smith on down to the coaches and us, it’s a commitment that we make to the students during recruiting, that we want them to graduate,” said John Macko, an OSU alumnus and athletic academic counselor in SASSO. “We always try to encourage them to come back and finish school.”
There are few things in life that come with no strings attached, and the DCP is no exception. Admission into the program is judged on a case-by-case basis, and the student-athletes have to meet certain requirements before becoming eligible to participate.
If an athlete doesn’t meet the requirements, however, he or she isn’t immediately disqualified from using the DCP.
“When we’ve had students come that were outside of those particular parameters, we don’t necessarily turn them away,” said David Graham, assistant provost director of SASSO. “We try to figure out a plan, and we have them put together a plan so that they can fit into that window.”
Graham said 10-15 athletes typically participate in the program each quarter.
“It provides them with an opportunity to tap into their real-life experiences, and use that experience to work with some of our active student-athletes,” Graham said.
Scoonie Penn is one former student-athlete who took advantage of the education assistance the program offers. Penn played on the OSU men’s basketball team from 1998-2000, but forwent his senior season to enter the NBA Draft. He’s been playing professional basketball overseas for 11 years.
“I came to Italy and what worked out to be a blessing was, I ended up breaking my ankle in my first year out of school, halfway through the season,” Penn said. “So I went back to Columbus and that’s when I finished my two remaining quarters and graduated.”
The student-athletes that have participated in the program represent many sports and ages. For an athlete like Penn, who has made money playing basketball in a number of different countries, the financial assistance might not make or break his decision to return.
In 2006, Penn’s agent Marc Cornstein told draftexpress.com that Penn would be leaving at least $1 million dollars on the table if he left Europe to again pursue his NBA dream.
For other student-athletes, such lucrative offers weren’t an option when their eligibility ran out.
“I’ve got guys that are 40 years old and they commute from an hour away to go to school,” Macko said. “I’ve never really done a count, but I’d have to think there’s more football players involved in the program (than any other sport).
“But it goes from men and women’s soccer to women’s ice hockey, women’s volleyball and basketball, I mean it’s across the spectrum.”
One of the former student-athletes who is enrolled in the DCP is Ken Johnson, a teammate of Penn on the men’s basketball team that made it to the NCAA Final Four in 1999.
“I was a little bit nervous about coming back, being older and everything,” Johnson said. “Mr. Macko was just excellent with me. He was walking through every step with me and he made it a lot easier to do this.”
SASSO isn’t able to provide the students with free tuition. If they’re accepted into the program, the athletes are asked to participate in community service.
“They can be creative with that process. We’ve had people that were coaching their particular sport at a high school,” Graham said. “We had an administrative program that involved taking care of and feeding the homeless people.
“Sometimes local schools will make requests for athletes to come read, to talk about the importance of literacy and to put those opportunities in front of students so that they can take advantage of it as well.”
The athletes have their reasons for wanting to finish their studies and earn a degree. For Penn, it was all about family.
“Being probably the first one in my family to graduate, it was something that I always thought about doing because it would be something for my nephews and nieces, and my cousins and the people in my family to say, ‘Wow, Scoonie, he went to college. And he graduated,'” Penn said.
It wasn’t just current family that Penn said he was worried about, but the family that he hopes to have one day as well.
“I always felt like one day when I have a family, I want to be able to say to my kids that you have to go to college,” Penn said. “And what kind of example am I if I didn’t finish?”
For former student-athletes, knowing that they’re interested in going back to school is often the easy part. Knowing what to use the degree on after they’ve earned it can be a bit more difficult.
Johnson, who is working on getting his art degree, laughed when asked what he plans to use it for.
“That’s an excellent question,” Johnson said. “I’m so nervous about it. I love kids, so if there’s anything open for me in the teaching field, I would absolutely love to teach art.”
Macko said more than 110 former student-athletes have graduated because of the DCP program. The first former student-athlete to sign up for the program, back when it was known as the Outreach Education Program, was former basketball player Clark Kellogg.
Other notable participants that have completed the program are former Buckeye football player Dimitrious Stanley, current Blue Jackets center R.J. Umberger and NFL kicker Mike Nugent.