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The Student Athlete Experience

Ryan Bradshaw
George Mason University

The Student Athlete Experience

Each year, almost half a million students at four year higher education institutions

participate in varsity athletics (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2016). Additionally,

approximately 60,000 student athletes compete for their schools with both the National

Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, 2016),

an association of small colleges, and the National Junior College Athletic Association (National

Junior College Athletic Association, 2017), an association of two year colleges. With anticipated

Ffall 2017 college and university enrollment figures of 20.4 million students (National Center for Commented [AKS1]: Capitalize seasons when used in this
Education Statistics, 2017), the percentage of American college students who participate in

athletics as student athletes is just 2.9%.

Characteristics of the Sstudent Ppopulation

Of the 497,632 student athletes participating in the National Collegiate Athletic

Association (NCAA) in 2016-17, 56.3% were male. 65.4% of student athletes were White,

16.1% were Black, and 5.4% were Hispanic/Latino. Additionally, 3.8% of student athletes were

international students. 14.7% of all athletes played football (all male), 11.8% competed in

outdoor track and field, 10.6% player soccer, and 7.1% played basketball (National Collegiate

Athletic Association, 2017).

Data provided by the NCAA shows that in 2016, 86% of student athletes graduated from

a four year institution with a degree. The sport an athlete plays, their gender, and their

race/ethnicity play a role in the expected graduation rate, with only 76% of football players and

80% of men’s basketball players graduating, while over 96% of women’s gymnastics, lacrosse,

and field hockey players graduated. Black football student athletes had the lowest graduation


rate, with only 70% reaching graduation, while 77% of Black men’s basketball players obtained

a diploma, compared to 89% of White football players and 95% of female basketball players

(National Collegiate Athletic Association Research Staff, 2016). Other research has found that

the graduation rates at Division 1 institutions is higher for athletes than the average for all

undergraduates, with female athletes being 10% more likely to graduate than other

undergraduates and male athletes being 1% more likely to graduate than the average student

(Rishe, 2003). The same study did findfound that Black athletes were 10% less likely to graduate

than the average student. Some recent outside researchers, however, question the legitimacy of

the NCAA’s numbers, including Turner, Southall, and Eckard (2015) who found that male

football and basketball players had lower graduation rates than the general student body and that

Black student athletes in both sports had far lower academic success rates than their white peers.

The NCAA has also found that 16% of student athletes are first generation students.

Football and wrestling are the sports with the highest prevalence of first generation student

athletes, with 25% and 23% respectively. Minority student athletes are also much more likely to

be first generation students compared to white student athletes, with 26% of minority student

athletes and 12% of White student athletes being first generation students. First generation

student athletes are also less likely to strongly agree that they would attend a four-year institution

than non-first generation students if they had not been a college athlete (National Collegiate

Athletic Association, 2016).

Student athletes who compete in the NCAA may participate at one of three different

classifications of institution, each of which would greatly influence their experience in college.

Of the 480,000 student athletes who competed in 2015/16, 176,000 participated at the Division 1

level, primarily comprised of large institutions, which provided some level of financial


scholarship tied to athletic participation to 56% of all student athletes; 119,000 participated at the

Division 2 level, primarily comprised of smaller institutions that provided some level of financial

scholarship tied to athletic participation to 61% of all student athletes; and 188,000 participated

at the Division 3 level, comprised almost exclusively of small liberal arts colleges that by NCAA

policy are not able to provide any financial assistance tied to participating in athletics to students

(National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2016). At Division 1 institutions, another important

factor that influences a student’s experience is whether or not they participate in a “revenue

generating” sports, such as football and men’s basketball (Horton, 2009), where a greater

emphasis is put on the institution selling tickets to games and earning lucrative television

contracts to broadcast games.

Barriers and Cchallenges to Ssuccess

A large difference in the student experience of student athletes compared to their peers is

the time demands that being a student athlete entails. Jolly (2008) provides an example of one of

his students having their entire day scheduled out for them from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., by going from

academic monitoring appointments, to classes, to four-hours of practice/workout, to dinner, and

then to study hall or class. During their season, 82% of Division 1 student athletes report

spending more than 10 hours per week practicing their sport and 40% report spending more than

10 hours per week playing their sport (Potuto & O'Hanlon, 2007). This regimented schedule is

difficult for many student athletes, particularly freshmen, to adjust to (Jolly, 2008).

Student athletes are also required to travel on a consistent basis during the season for

competitions. Only 12% of student athletes reported being able to stay at home for at least 15

consecutive days three or more times in a year (Potuto & O'Hanlon, 2007), meaning that students

have fewer opportunities to meet and engage with other students, faculty members, and


university staff, and are requireding student athletes to miss classroom time. Potuto and

O’Hanlon (2007) found that over half of the student athletes they surveyed spent less time on

academics than they would have liked and that athletic participation was the primary cause.

NCAA policies require student athletes to remain in good standing with the institution

and to be enrolled in a full time course load (Jolly, 2008). There is immense pressure to maintain

sufficient grades in order to remain academically eligible (add cite). The result is that some

student athletes end up choosing less academically rigorous programs of study (Foster & Huml,

2017), although very few regret the decision to put athletics ahead of academics (Potuto &

O'Hanlon, 2007). Student athletes who see themselves primarily as athletes and who factor in the

time they will dedicate to athletics when choosing a major are more likely to pick a major that

follows their athletic goals but not their long term career goals (Foster & Huml, 2017). Over two-

thirds of student athletes also reported not being able to take courses they were interested in due

to their participation in sport (Potuto & O'Hanlon, 2007).

A majority of student athletes see themselves as primarily athletes and less students Commented [AKS2]: “less students” sounds a little bit
wonky -- “primarily as athletes and less as students” might
work better?
(Watt & Moore, 2001; Potuto & O'Hanlon, 2007). One recent study found that 93% of student

athletes believed that they were easily recognizable on campus as an athlete (Parsons, 2013).

This leads to a feeling of isolation between student athletes and the rest of the college culture

(Gaston-Gayles, 2015). The student athletes spend the majority of their time with their

teammates, traveling together, practicing/working out together, studying together, and often

living together, and as such have a network of friends at the ready, which keeps them from

seeking out friends outside of their team (Jolly, 2008). This can also lead to student athletes who

have classes together self-segregating themselves from other students and failing to establish

meaningful relationships with fellow students (Watt & Moore, 2001).


Student athletes must also deal with stereotypes and prejudices against them as student

athletes, primarily the “‘dumb jock”’ stereotype, from fellow students and faculty members

(Parsons, 2013). Studies have shown that some faculty members are unwilling to assist student

athletes in rescheduling tests or assignments when travel for competition creates a conflict for the

student (Parsons, 2013). Parsons’ (2013) study at a Division 2 institution also found that two

negative remarks some student athletes heard from faculty members were “athletes are only

interested in sports” and “athletes expect special treatment they don’t deserve”.(p. #).

Support Structures

The motivations of student athletes to participate in both athletics and academics is are

different for each individual. Gaston-Gayles (2015) suggests that an important step to for campus

administrators to take in determining a student athlete’s desire to focus on academics, athletics,

or both is to assess their motivations, enabling administrators to develop a course of action to

help increase the student athlete’s academic motivations if necessary. An assessment would also

allow student affairs professionals on campus to better understand the individual student athletes

and understand how tensions between athletics and academics will might affect that student

(Watt & Moore, 2001). Better education of on these tensions and the other challenges that

student athletes face can help faculty and staff members understand the unique barriers these

students face and improve their service to this population (Watt & Moore, 2001; Jolly, 2008) and

remove some of the stereotypes and prejudices that student athletes face. This includes

increasing student athlete-faculty interactions both inside and outside the classroom (Jolly, 2008;

Gaston-Gayles, 2015).

Interacting with non-athlete peer students is also an important step to limiting the

isolation affect that student athletes face. Finding ways for student athletes to interact with other


student organizations through events and service activities can help get student athletes outside

of the bubble of their teammates (Gaston-Gayles, 2015). Gaston-Gayles (2015) also recommends

thate student athletes live on campus in buildings that are primarily comprised of non-athletes,

allowing them more opportunities to interact and build relationships with peers, faculty, and


Research into academic performance of student athletes also suggests that better

understanding by athletic departments and academic advisors of the factors that influence student

athletes’ course selection processes and motivations for choosing majors can assist in guiding

students towards their intended career choices and taking pursuing majors that align with the

long term goals (Foster & Huml, 2017). Understanding student athletes’ schedules and offering

advising sessions in the evenings and on weekends can also assist this population (Watt &

Moore, 2001). Bimper (2017) also suggests that increased mentoring programs for Bblack

student athletes will assist in improving their educational attainment by black student athletes.

This matches with Watt & Moore’s (2001) recommendation of creatingto create a network of

successful student athlete graduates to serve as mentors for current student athletes.


Student athletes are a small percentage of the total higher education student body who are

typically very visible as ambassadors of the institution. The time commitments demanded of

these students for practices, games, and travel make them a unique population who need

additional support to succeed. Many student athletes do see academic success, which is

necessary since only 2% of NCAA student athletes continue on to play sports professionally

(National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2016).


Campus administrators can help this student population succeed by finding ways to

increase interactions between student athletes and their faculty, staff, and peers to combat the

sense of isolation many student athletes experience on campus. Educating faculty members about

the demands that student athletes face can also help combat stereotypes that exist about student

athletes and encourage these students to seek out more rigorous academic majors. Lastly,

mentorship programs for student athletes of all genders, races, and ethnicities can assist in

increasing graduation rates for all student athletes, particularly Bblack males.

This small group of students are typically the most visible face of many large institutions.

The fFaculty, staff, and fellow students should find ways to ensure that the face of the institution

is also a graduate of the institution.

Excellent work! Well researched and very nicely written.



References Commented [AKS3]: Double-space reference list

Be sure to double-check capitalization throughout reference

list, per my edits to the first few sources in your list, since
programs like Zotero don’t always generate perfect APA
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