Do college athletes receive preferential academic support?

How does the academic support athletes receive differ from that available to the general student body? That is a question recently asked in a recent article by the New York Times (link here, subscription required). The article notes that many of the nation’s top athletic programs have recently invested significant funds in their athletic-academic programs. Louisiana State University spent $15 million to build an academic center for athletes, for example, and the University of Georgia built a new facility for $7 million. Temple University, increased the academic support budget for athletes by 34 percent after poor academic performance led to scholarship losses imposed by the NCAA.

Increased funding includes not only bricks and mortar, but also investment in tutoring staff, computers, and other academic equipment. The Times reported that the University of Southern California spends $1.5 million annually on tutors and other academic support for its student athletes, more than most programs. The university has 14½ staff positions in its Student Athlete Academic Services Department to serve its 550 athletes. Similarly, the University of Georgia has a $1.3 million budget with 17 full-time staff members and more than 60 tutors for 600 athletes.

Chris McFoy, a senior wide receiver at the University of Southern California, told the paper that during his freshman season, he met weekly with four tutors, one for each of his classes, as well as a learning specialist who composed “action plans” to organize his schedule and help him plan for tests and papers. “There’s no way that you should do bad,” said McFoy. “You have to really not care about your grades, or your life in general, to mess up.”

Bigger stadiums and better training facilities are no longer enough to attract some of the most talented football prospects. The competition to create a top athletic program now extends to efforts that help ensure that players survive in class. “We’re looking for every opportunity to get ahead,” said Pete Carroll, the football coach at the University of Southern California. “It’s getting competitive — that’s one of the reasons why we have this center,” said Becky Galvin, an academic counselor and tutorial coordinator at the University of Georgia. “The coaches started hearing from kids that so-and-so had a nicer academic center. We had a good academic program, but we didn’t have all the bells and whistles.”

Pressure for schools to increase academic support for their athletes also comes from the NCAA. Its rules can reduce the number of scholarships for colleges whose athletes do not meet minimum academic standards. Such rules have helped to fuel the building boom and budget increases for academic centers.

While college officials say these programs are necessary because athletes must devote so much time to their sports, few other students whose time is consumed by jobs or activities receive as much assistance. Another issue is oversight: The educational support centers often report to the athletic director, who has an interest in keeping athletes eligible to compete, instead of to the academic leadership. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has recommended that academic advising for athletes be kept in line with the academic advising for non-athletes, including funding, staff, and time devoted to tutoring. In a response to the recent NCAA Presidential Task Force on the Future of Division I Intercollegiate Athletics, the Commission stated: “athletics programs should be held to the same standards, norms, requirements and lines of reporting as all other aspects of the academic enterprise. This includes budgeting, recruiting, admissions, academic advising, and expectations for athletes’ behavior.”

Jim Delany, the commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, agreed with the Knight Commission’s recommendation. He told the New York Times, “I think that the people who work in [athletic academic support services] should be working for the provost.”