UA student-athletes find academic success despite low graduation rates

Every weekday, University of Arizona senior Alex Weatherly wakes up at 7 a.m. to make herself a big breakfast before her classes begin at 9 a.m. At around noon, the 22-year-old physiology major works out, runs errands and eats lunch before returning to campus in the afternoon. When she finally finishes with school around 5 p.m., Weatherly returns home and does homework, fills out job applications and eats dinner before falling asleep around 10 p.m.

When you look at Weatherly’s daily routine, her schedule seems typical for any college senior. Therefore people are shocked to find out that the 5-foot-7, blue-eyed blonde with a 4.0 GPA is a member of the school’s track and field team.

“I take it as a compliment when people tell me they didn’t know that I was an athlete and that I was this smart,” Weatherly said.

After a strong high school athletic career at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, Weatherly was offered a chance to walk-on the track and field teams at either Arizona State University or the University of Arizona. She picked the UA because she wanted to move away from home, but also because her work in the classroom earned her a full academic scholarship at the university.

Weatherly enrolled at the UA in 2009, taking the first year off to focus on academics before joining the indoor and outdoor track and field teams in 2010. After redshirting her first season, Weatherly competed in pole vault as a redshirt freshman and sophomore. After a lackluster debut season, she rebounded as a redshirt sophomore, earning a spot on the 2012 All-Pac-12 team and getting a chance to compete at the Pac-12 Championships. However, she was unable to get a chance to build off that success, as she missed her entire redshirt junior season with a broken bone in her foot.

Meanwhile, her work in the classroom earned her a spot on the 2012 Pac-12 All-Academic First Team and the 2012 MPSF All-Academic Team. Despite having one more year of eligibility left, she decided that she would rather graduate and start a non-athletic professional career than continue to compete collegiately.

“We can’t all be Brigetta Barrett,” Weatherly said, referring to her teammate who won a silver medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics. “I’m not as good as her, so it just doesn’t make sense. It’s more feasible to continue on in some other path.”

More and more, the roughly 450,000 student-athletes across the country are disproving the notion that athletes only go to college for sports. The dumb jock stereotype is almost non-existent as student-athletes are using their athletic scholarships to earn college degrees.

According to the NCAA, the percentages of college baseball, football, men’s ice hockey, men’s basketball, men’s soccer and women’s basketball players who go on to play professionally are 11.6 percent, 1.7 percent, 1.3 percent, 1.2 percent, 1 percent and 0.9 percent, respectively.

Realizing how low these numbers are, the NCAA has made a concentrated effort over the past decade to encourage universities to place a stronger emphasis on academics. In order to evaluate schools’ academic achievements, they use the graduation success rate, which measures the proportion of student-athletes who earn a degree within six years of enrolling at their university.

According to the 2012 graduation success rate figures, 81 percent of athletes who entered school between 2002-2003 in 2005-2006 graduated in six years or less, which is one percentage point less than the record set last year. In addition, the graduation success rate of the two most popular sports, men’s basketball and football, sit at 74 percent 70 percent, respectively. These numbers have increased 18 percentage points and 7 percentage points over the past 11 years, respectively.

While the NCAA is extremely encouraged by the overall improvements in these numbers, many schools are still struggling to graduate their student-athletes.

The University of Arizona’s graduation success rate is well below average, sitting at 68 percent for student-athletes in all sports, as well as 57 percent for football players and 54 percent for men’s basketball players.

UA GSR Compared to NCAA

“We did not get into that position overnight and we won’t get out of it overnight,” said University of Arizona Athletic Director Greg Byrne. “We have been making steady and significant process over the last several years.”

The UA not only is below average compared to the entire NCAA, but also sit last among the schools in the Pac-12 Conference.

UA GSR Compared to Pac-12

However, comparing the University of Arizona’s numbers to a conference that includes nationally recognized academic universities like Stanford, UCLA, USC and UC-Berkeley might be unfair to the UA.

A more telling way to evaluate graduation success of student-athletes would be to compare its data to the University of Arizona’s peer institutions. However, the UA also ranks last among the group of 16 universities.

UA GSR Compared to Peer Institutions

“Of course we want our numbers to be higher and we are working towards this end,” Byrne said.

While Byrne is extremely concerned by the low numbers, he does not feel that the graduation success rate model is an accurate depiction of the University of Arizona’s athletic department.

One problem that Byrne has with the calculations is that the data comes from students who were at the university during the time of previous Athletic Director Jim Livengood. Byrne, who joined the UA in 2010, will not be able to see data from student-athletes from his tenure until 2020.

“For the past five years, we have made a concerted effort to improve our graduation success rate, but the data reflecting that commitment will not be available for another few years,” Byrne said.

Another problem with the graduation success rate is that it does not accurately account for players who transferred away from the program or left early to turn professional.

For example, the most recent graduation success rate for the UA baseball team was 20 percent, which ranked last in the NCAA and more than 20 percentage points below the school with second lowest rate. However, 12 freshmen that joined the team during the four-year period transferred, another 12 left after their junior year to enter the MLB Draft and another three players left the team due to other reasons. This list also does not include Lee Franklin, who died in 2006 from leukemia.

A more accurate way to determine recent academic success is the academic progress rate. The academic progress rate is different than the graduation success rate because it factors in retention rates by calculating a student-athlete’s academic achievements during their time at the university. The rates are then put on a 1,000-point scale, with 1,000 being a perfect score and 925 being about the equivalent of a 50 percent graduation rate. Last year, 17 out of the University of Arizona’s 18 teams had an academic progress rate of over 930, which is considered above the national average.

While Byrne does not want to discredit the low graduation success rate numbers, he believes that the academic progress rate scores, as well as the academic achievements of student-athletes, show that student-athletes are right in line with the general student population.

Each school year, the athletic department holds an annual banquet to recognize student-athletes’ academic success. According to Byrne, last year roughly 50 percent of student-athletes qualified for the department’s Academic Champions Award, which is given to student-athletes who had a cumulative 3.0 GPA or higher during the entire school year. In addition, another 18 had a 4.0 GPA and three senior athletes were valedictorians.

Also, for freshmen students who enrolled at the University of Arizona for the 2005-2006 school year, the federal graduation rate was 61 percent for regular students and student-athletes. This means that student-athletes are achieving the same graduation success as the general student population.

Disregarding statistics, Byrne feels that the athletic department has made a lot of progress, but is not quite where it wants to be.

“Our number one goal in our five defining principles as a department is for our student-athletes to graduate,” Byrne said. “Our ultimate goal is to graduate 100 percent of our student-athletes.”

While the general student population at the University of Arizona might feel that student-athletes have an easier road to graduation due to all the help they receive, members of the athletic department point out that athletes are actually held to a higher academic standard than non-athletes.

Assistant Director for Internal Operations Jennifer Mewes, who serves as an academic counselor for the baseball, golf and swimming teams, says student-athletes are required to participate in an average of six hours of supervised study hall every week. Also, every student-athlete that is enrolled in math, English or Spanish classes are required to regularly meet with a tutor. These rules are stricter for freshmen athletes, as they have increased study hall hours and are required to see their academic counselor every week.

“The goal is for a balance between athletics and academics,” Greg Byrne said. “What we ask from our student-athletes from a time stand point is significant, so academic support is critical to their success.”

Mewes also points to the athletic department’s strict attendance policy, which suspends athletes from practices and games if they miss more than three classes in the same subject. The athletic department sends representatives at the beginning of class to make sure the student-athletes are present.

These athletic department-mandated requirements are in addition to the NCAA’s requirements, which state that all student-athletes with below a 2.0 GPA are ineligible for competition.

“Student-athletes are very similar to students who have full-time jobs,” Mewes said. “They’re trying to manage their class schedule with their practice schedule or their job schedule.”

In order to help with academic constraints, the athletic department provides peer counseling to help develop useful life skills.

The C.A.T.S. Life Skills Program for athletes helps students prepare for a future, whether it is in sports or not. Student-athletes are required to meet with their academic counselors and Becky Bell, the head of the program, regularly to discuss the athletes’ personal development, career development and community service.

“What I do is I ask them where they see themselves right now, where they see themselves in five years and where they see themselves in the future,” Mewes said. “That way I can focus on helping them think more long-term.”

Other useful services that the athletic department provides student-athletes include time management workshops, which teach athletes how to manage homework while travelling to away games and meets. The athletic department also provides 12 hours of office hours with faculty mentors as part of the University of Arizona’s Faculty Fellow program, where students can talk to faculty members about anything.

“I think the athletic department has done a really, really good job,” Alex Weatherly said. “It would be impossible to fail because they’d catch you before that could happen.”

What non-athletes can point to is NCAA’s Academic-Eligibility Requirements, which are much lower for student-athletes. According to the NCAA’s annual guide for incoming freshmen, student-athletes with a 3.4 GPA (the mean GPA for incoming UA freshman) only need a 460 on their SAT, based on a 1600-point scale. The average SAT score for the middle 50 percent of UA students is an 1100, according to the UA Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

However, Mewes and her colleagues believe that incoming grades should be ignored in favor of grades that are recorded at the university level. According to her, the life and academic skills that student-athletes learn in college are much more beneficial for their futures. And hopefully through the services they provide them, they are able to take those skills and apply them to their daily lives.

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

As she prepares to graduate, Alex Weatherly keeps this Eleanor Roosevelt quote saved in her phone as a reminder of her college experience.

“I’ve learned in college that my favorite people are the ones who can discuss the world around them,” Weatherly said.

Next year, Weatherly will be working with a doctor, either at the University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz. or the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., before she applies to medical school. Her ultimate goal is to become a neurosurgeon as neurophysiology classes were her favorite at the university.

While there were some days where Weatherly was overwhelmed because of classes, track and field practice and school work, she feels that being able to be a student-athlete was a unique experience that she will cherish the rest of her life.

“It was easily the best four years of my life,” Weatherly said. “I’m really happy to have been able to be an athlete and a student at the same time. It was hard but it was definitely worth every 13-hour day that I spent on campus.”

Note: This assignment was completed for my Journalism 411: Feature Writing class.

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