Academic Services for College Athletics: Helping or Hurting?

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Image from sports.vice.com

In 2011, freshman Malcolm Mitchell stepped on campus at the University of Georgia to play football. Mitchell arrived with a lot of talent, high expectations, and an eighth grade reading level. Malcolm played four successful seasons, accompanied by a long list of accolades and a current roster spot with the New England Patriots. This seems like a familiar narrative: high profile college athlete, with minimal academic skills, scrapes by to get to “The League.”

But Mitchell’s story is different. Earlier in his college career, while wandering through a Barnes & Noble, Mitchell found himself talking with a stranger, a mother of five, who began talking about her book club. Interested in an opportunity to work on his reading, Mitchell asked if he could be a part of her club. That is how the 19-year-old college football star found himself in a room full of 40- 50- and 60-year-old women discussing books such as “Me Before You,” and “City of Thieves.”

Mitchell became a regular member of the book club, and the ladies took him in as one of them. This ignited a love for reading that Malcolm never knew he had. He went on to graduate from Georgia (earning a 4.0 in his last semester), but not before authoring a children’s book, “The Magician’s Hat,” which earned the 2016 Children’s Author of the Year by the Georgia Writers Association. Mitchel continues to pursue his passions of reading and writing, while also serving as a mentor to kids in his community.

Malcolm Mitchell displays his award winning book, “The Magician’s Hat.” Photo from ilovetowatchyouplay.com

This is an example of a college student-athlete who did things “the right way.” Mitchell was able to make the most of his student-athlete experience, but it took a community of people who cared enough to help him do that. The beginning of Malcolm’s story is increasingly common today. More student-athletes are coming to universities lacking the appropriate skills. In an effort to address this issue, athletic departments are pouring investments into state-of-the-art academic centers, and staffing them with academic counselors and learning specialists who care about student-athlete success. The efforts to remediate these student-athletes are widely criticized as feeble attempts to keep “the talent” eligible. I would argue that academic services for athletics are in the business of creating more Malcolm Mitchells. Unfortunately, the end of his story is a narrative far rarer among underprepared college student-athletes.

As a former middle and high school teacher, I have witnessed student-athletes being pushed through the public education system. I can’t say I have ever been pressured to pass an undeserving student, but I have seen it happen. I have witnessed coaches and parents alike rush to advocate for students who refuse to advocate for themselves. Everyone wants the student-athletes to succeed, to reach their potential, but the system will eventually push them through regardless of effort or desire. There is no direct or immediate way to quantify this issue, but it is becoming a bigger problem.

After three years of public secondary education, I am now working in academic services as a learning specialist at a prominent Power 5 institution. As a learning specialist, it is my job to work with student-athletes who have various barriers to learning. It is no surprise to me when student-athletes come into our program with staggeringly low entrance exams scores, and eighth grade mastery levels. I have seen how it happens, and it’s just par for the course.

As athletic programs continue to recruit higher level athletes, with lower test scores, the role of academic services begins to take a different shape. This changing nature of athletic academics is sparking a new demand for learning specialists like me. While the position’s job description varies across institutions, learning specialists commonly work with student-athletes who are underserved and underprepared.

With academic fraud cases popping up left and right, a more watchful eye is being placed on athletic academic services. Meanwhile learning specialists and academic counselors work furiously to bridge the educational gap between current mastery level and university expectations. Scandals, like the ones at UNC Chapel Hill, Missouri, and Notre Dame, create doubt that this bridge-building can take place without serious integrity violations. The question becomes: “Where is the line between helping, and helping too much?” Does this line allow us to do enough to serve these student-athletes?

Mary Willingham, a current professor at UNC Chapel Hill, served as a learning specialist from 2003 to 2010. In an interview with CNN, Willingham gives her thoughts on this question:

Isn’t it all cheating if I’m sitting at a table with a kid who can’t read or write at college level and pulling a paper out of them? Is this really legitimate? No,… I wouldn’t do that today with a college student; I only did it with athletics, because it’s necessary.

Willingham echoes the arguments that many critics of athletic academic services posit. She tells CNN that she is not convinced that all of the reform at UNC will considerably alter the dynamics between student-athletes and the academic environment.

Usually, when I tell people what I do, I get two different responses. The first group commends me for helping those student-athletes who just need some extra guidance. The second group scoffs at my work, degrading it to eligibility management for student-athletes who do not belong in this environment. I like to think my profession is more noble than that, but in reality, I probably lie somewhere in-between. Can these student-athletes be sufficiently remediated to a level that satisfies the university? Some faculty members might say “no,” and I might agree.

But what is the alternative here? So many promising student-athletes grow up with learning disabilities, and in environments that are not conducive to their cognitive, emotional, or social development. Their schools are often ill-equipped with inadequate resources to sufficiently serve them. Where do they end up otherwise? Shouldn’t their hard work on the field count for something? I think so.

The NCAA, and its member institutions, get a bad reputation for prioritizing athletic production over academic success. I don’t disagree, but does the problem start with the NCAA, or does it start at the early levels of education? Our public school systems are rife with systemic and institutional failures to equip students. I have seen it firsthand. How should the NCAA and its members respond? Should it turn underserved student-athletes away?

So we usher in new rosters of student-athletes every year, each with their own subgroup of students who are not yet prepared to meet the demands of higher education amid their already rigorous schedule. There is a tension in this industry that thickens each year. This tension is the war between providing academic support with integrity, and doing everything we can to guide our student-athletes towards success. It gets messy, but it’s worth it when you see a guy like Malcolm Mitchell read his own book to a new generation of future college student-athletes.

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