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Athletics and academics: How Ohio State teams fare off the field and in the classroom

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This is the second article in a two-part series. The first article focused on the university’s response to athletic records requests filed by The Lantern.

The Ohio State football team often celebrates success on the field, but its players’ academic achievements come up short of championship-level when compared to other OSU sports.

From 2009 to 2015, the OSU football team had an average 2.67 GPA on a 4.0 scale. This is the second-lowest average GPA for all 35 sports for which data was supplied to The Lantern. Football also had the most team members with an average 118 athletes per year for the seven years of data.

The lowest average GPA was held by the men’s basketball team, which had an average 2.57 GPA. The average number of athletes on this team, however, is much lower than the number of athletes on the football team. Over the seven years, the men’s basketball team had, on average, 13 student-athletes.

In an effort to compare academic performance between OSU sports, The Lantern analyzed GPA data for 35 university sports for each academic term from 2009 to 2015.

Some members of the sports community, such as David Graham, assistant vice provost and associate athletics director for student-athlete success, said GPA numbers alone do not necessarily correlate to underperformance in academics.

Instead, Graham said he thinks a holistic look at a student-athlete’s collegiate career is a better indicator of an individual’s success.

“I start looking at graduation rates and saying, are people coming here and having a holistic experience based on their desires, based on their aptitude, based on their attitude?” he said. “And when I can answer those questions with ‘yes,’ I believe that they are having a holistic experience they have designed themselves, and we have co-authored or helped point them in the right direction.”

Gerald Gurney, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma and the current president of The Drake Group, Inc, an organization that focuses on issues of academic integrity in college athletics, agreed that GPAs do not tell the whole story. However, he added that he thinks the quality of an athlete’s overall education needs to be improved.

“I can tell you that the game now is to keep athletes eligible at any cost. That means keeping their GPAs high or at least above the minimum standards,” he said. “It is not about taking courses that are going to move you toward a degree or courses that you might be interested in or courses that might present difficulty for the athletes.”

This is typically observed in revenue-generating sports, Gurney added.

“The problem with intercollegiate athletics is not with the swimming team or the women’s lacrosse team. The problem is the football and men’s basketball teams,” he said.  

 Graham pointed to the socioeconomic backgrounds of student-athletes as something that should be taken into consideration when comparing academic performance between teams.

“It is hard to compare our swim team to our football team,” he said. “The socioeconomics are so different around those teams and sports. When you look at where they come from in terms of the school systems, you will probably say, ‘It makes sense.’”

 

Graduation goals

The NCAA annually releases a report detailing the Graduation Success Rate of student-athletes enrolled at Division I schools for six-year periods, as determined by the U.S. Department of Education, according to the association’s website.

Based on the most recent academic data provided on the NCAA’s website, which includes information from the 2005 to 2008 cohorts, all but one OSU sports team — women’s fencing — had a GSR that either matched or exceeded the federal rate.  

Of the 29 sports on the NCAA website for which OSU-specific and federal rates were provided, all sports had at least a 60 percent GSR. Additionally, eight OSU teams had a 100 percent GSR.

Graham said the Department of Athletics is always looking to improve, and compared its goals to those of a sports team competing in a game.

“Perfection is always the goal, right? One hundred percent. One hundred percent graduation rate. One hundred percent of your student-athletes above a 3.0,” he said. “So where we are to that 100 percent gives us a lot of opportunity to get better.”

 

 

The OSU men’s basketball team had the lowest GSR with 62 percent of its student-athletes completing their academic degrees in six years. Nationally, men’s basketball also has the lowest federal GSR at 27 percent.

(The NBA only requires that players be one year removed from high school and 19 years old at the end of the calendar year to be eligible for its draft, but none of the sources contacted for this article emphasized that as a factor, instead focusing on the socioeconomic argument to explain the low GSR).

Gurney said he has observed an increased emphasis on GSR, describing it as “a graduation metric that has been designed by the NCAA to put athletes in the most favorable light.”

Instead, he suggested, the College Sport Research Institute’s Adjusted Graduation Gap Report could provide a more accurate picture of the academic standings of athletes. The AGG attempts to compare student-athletes to their full-time, non-athlete peers.   

“All NCAA athletes must be ‘full-time’ and should therefore be compared with other full-time students,” the CSRI’s 2016 report states.  

For OSU’s Columbus campus, the four-year graduation rate for students who entered OSU in Autumn 2009 was 58.5 percent. The six-year graduation rate for students who entered OSU in Autumn 2009 was 83.1 percent.

The CSRI argues that because the Federal Graduation Rate factors in part-time students — who often take longer to graduate and thus bring down an institution’s graduation rate — this calculation “significantly reduces the measured general student-body FGR, making the relative rate of college athletes at many schools and conferences appear more favorable.”

According to the CSRI’s 2016 report on the AGG for Division I men’s basketball, all conferences within Division I had negative AGGs. This means that graduation rates for student-athletes participating in these conference schools’ basketball programs are less than the rates for the male, non-athlete students who attend these colleges and universities.  

In football, the Big Ten AGG was tied for the second-worst rate when compared to other “Power 5” schools — Big 12, SEC, ACC and Pac-12.

The CSRI reports did not break down data by individual schools or teams.

Gurney said he is concerned that even the athletes who do end up completing their degree programs lack the skills necessary for success in post-graduation employment.

“Many athletes really don’t have a coherent program of study and are unprepared to be successful in the world of work,” he said.  

“College presidents are really selling an illusion. And what they are saying to these recruits is, ‘We won’t pay you, but instead we are going to provide you with a real education.’ What they are doing is offering, typically to the athletes participating in the revenue-generating sports of football and men’s basketball, a second-class education.”

Gurney added that the quality of education provided to student-athletes could be linked to the other arguments present in the world of collegiate athletics, such as the topic of paying athletes.  

“When you listen carefully to the pay for play arguments, what they are saying is that what you’re offering me in the way of education is no longer meaningful,” he said. “The Drake Group and I firmly stand on the side of athletics continuing the educational model as opposed to a monetary market value model. But so much work has to be done on the academic side to provide meaningful education to these athletes.”

 According to data provided by OSU, the five most common majors in which student-athletes are enrolled are communication, consumer and family financial services, sport industry, marketing and biology.

Student-athletes at OSU are enrolled in a total of 116 different majors, based on the Spring 2015 major count.

 

Academic and athletic achievement

According to The Lantern’s analysis, 26 OSU teams have an average GPA above 3.0.  

The team with the highest average GPA, at 3.41, is the women’s cross country team.  

Sara Vergote, the assistant coach for women’s distance and cross country, said the team has an “unspoken academic standard” and added that, currently, most, if not all, of the student-athletes have GPAs above 3.0.

On average, there are approximately 19 athletes on the women’s cross country team each year.

Vegote said she thinks the academic achievement of the team speaks to the discipline demanded of athletes by the nature of the sport.

Over the past seven years, the women’s swimming team, which has approximately 30 student-athletes each year, received an average GPA of 3.36.

Bill Dorenkott, head coach of the women’s swimming and diving team, said he thinks the “history of (OSU’s) program academically” contributes to the high GPAs earned by his team members each year.

“We’re very purposeful in identifying kids who are high academic achievers,” Dorenkott said. “Our highest academic achievers are also our highest athletic achievers. They’re more focused, more disciplined, they actually have more time because they’re good in terms of planning, organization and budgeting their time.”

Dorenkott said many student-athletes on his team learn these skills prior to coming to OSU, but cautioned that this might not be the case for all sports.

“A lot of kids we attract just from a socioeconomic standpoint, they’re coming from strong school districts, strong families and typically they aren’t first-generation college students,” he said.

 

The ‘motivation gap’

Dorenkott said his team has expectations based on the “the golden rule … to achieve at your potential.”  

Graham said this message is what he and his team are often working toward — finding a balance of an athlete’s academic abilities and his or her athletic goals.  

“Sometimes there is a gap between (athletes’ academic) need and their (athletic) pursuits. And what I call that gap is the ‘motivation gap,’” Graham said.  

“They are highly motivated on the athletic side because that is where they see the most success. The academic side, they are not as motivated, but they are capable and so we continue to try to help them to translate or have parallel success in the academic world.”

The competitiveness of college athletics sometimes makes it hard to balance school-related and sport-related responsibilities, Graham said.

“Looking at our student-athletes, they want to be the best in their particular field. They have to dedicate a majority of their energy to be the best in their particular sport,” he said. “So sometimes, something suffers, and usually it is the academics. Sometimes the academics are not on par with what people hope for.”

The goal, Graham said, is to instill in the student-athlete the drive to succeed academically as well as athletically.

“They start raising their motivation levels to mirror their athletic motivation levels,” he said. “That’s the job.”

 

Student services

Both Vergote and Dorenkott stressed the large time commitment that comes with being a student athlete.  

“Other students on campus work jobs and have other obligations and organizations they’re a part of. For us, there is a travel component that requires you to be on top of what’s going on with your school work because we’re gone sporadically throughout the year,” Vergote said.  

Dorenkott also compared the time commitments his athletes devote to the sport to having an on-campus job.  

“The fact they’re giving up 20 hours of their week just means they have less discretionary time,” he said. “It’s a big commitment but we also believe the costs are well worth the rewards.”  

There are resources offered specifically to student-athletes who are struggling to balance their academics and athletics. The Student-Athlete Support Services Office, located in the Younkin Success Center, offers academic counseling and also provides tutoring for close to 500 different academic subjects.

SASSO assists more than 900 student-athletes across 36 sports teams.  

“If we flag someone who needs help academically, the first thing we do is set up a tutor, and that is something that has been very helpful,” Vergote said. “Even for (athletes) who are high academic achievers, if they’re in a class that is particularly difficult, the tutoring piece has been helpful.”  

Graham said that SASSO also provides skill and personal development workshops that focus on the holistic development and prepares students for post-college life.  

“We have people (who) understand the nature of their academic and athletic pursuits, which helps student-athletes and counselors build relationships that help with life counseling, as well as a support system these student-athletes can depend on,” Graham said. “We like to say that we become life counselors because we look at a lot of different aspects of student life while they’re here at OSU.”

 

Methodology

Comparison between OSU athletic teams was done based on data provided by the university from 2009 to 2015. Averages over the seven years of data (14 academic terms) provided were taken for team GPA, number of enrolled credit hours per semester and number of students on each team. The numbers for 35 OSU athletic teams were calculated. The averages for student-athletes in the spirit program were not calculated because of inconsistencies in the datasets provided.

OSU was unable to provide the number of players who fell within certain GPA ranges for each sport; citing that this information would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Additionally, The Lantern initially requested information on student-athlete attendance records. However, OSU failed to provide data surrounding attendance rates of student-athletes, saying that the university does not monitor every student-athlete. Therefore, the data requested could not be provided. The university later explained that there are certain circumstances where the Department of Athletics and the SASSO chooses to monitor daily attendance for specific student-athletes. An OSU spokeswoman said that this data would be student-specific information pertaining to individual student-athletes and would therefore be protected by FERPA.

This series was made possible by the generosity of The Lantern and Ohio State alumna Patricia Miller.

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