The A-Team

No one is feeling the squeeze of NCAA academic reform more than those in the trenches of academic support. In this article, we talk to administrators and counselors who are figuring out how to rise to the challenge.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 16.4, June/July 2004,

When people ask Carol Walker if she has any kids, her answer is quick. "I say, ‘Oh, yeah. Quite a few.’"

Seventy-one to be exact.

Walker is an Academic Counselor for Athletics at the University of Miami. She works with freshmen and sophomores from the football, swimming and diving, and volleyball teams. A former collegiate student-athlete herself, Walker takes pride in the role she plays with each young person.

"It’s personal," she says. "You have to have a firm hand, but you let them know you care, and you serve as a mentor. We don’t consider ourselves friends because they get too comfortable if we say we’re friends. But sometimes we’re the only positive role model some of these kids have once they get to the college level.

"Right now, we’re getting ready for graduation in May," she continues. "That’s our national championship."

Graduation day will loom larger for Walker and her counterparts across NCAA Division I athletics in the next several years. The academic reform movement has raised the bar for individual student-athletes to remain eligible, and programs will be scrutinized for academic progress and graduation rates under the NCAA’s incentives-disincentives package.

But the effects don’t stop at Division I. Division II has also adjusted its continuing eligibility standards. Plus, two-year colleges will be heavily affected by the NCAA requirement that an athlete reach 40 percent of four-year degree requirements after two years of junior college play. Even high schools are affected, because today’s initial-eligibility standards carry more emphasis on core-course work and high school GPAs than in the past.

"It’s probably the biggest step in academic reform in a long time," says Tomas Jimenez, Assistant Athletic Director for Academics at Miami, "maybe since the first eligibility requirements were put forth quite a few years ago. It’s going to prompt every college athletic department official—administrators, coaches, faculty, presidents—to refocus on academics and place a priority on academics and graduation."

In response, the work of people like Jimenez and Walker is coming under the microscope. And the issues that surround their work are stirring up debate.

Many athletic directors are paying closer attention to the structure of their academic support units these days, and with good reason. Schools with successful support programs have a solid foundation with clear direction. But the method of actually structuring these programs has been shifting.

While many schools still house their academic support program under the purview of the athletic department, others are shifting them to fall under general student support services. Each choice has its supporters.

At the University of Miami, Jimenez heads an advising unit housed within Miami’s athletic department, which he feels can more easily address the special needs of student-athletes, from time demands and scheduling complexities to following eligibility rules and handling the stress of high-profile athletics. "I know that academics are definitely a priority for students across the campus, but they don’t have this eligibility rule staring them in the face," Jimenez says. "It takes an office within athletics to know what these rules are and to make sure that they’re discussed with students, so they know exactly where they need to be."

Demetrius Marlowe, President of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics (N4A), and Assistant to the Vice President for Student Affairs and Services at Michigan State University, also sees advantages to the in-house model. "Some units on campus close at five o’clock. By then, the athletes are just getting out of practice, and they need services," he says.

In addition, athletic advisors have a clientele with needs different from those of the average student. "With the caseloads in college advising, it’s often, ‘Yep, those classes fit your major. Bye,’" Marlowe says. "With an athlete, it’s, ‘Let’s really look at what your schedule is. Let’s see when practice time is going to be.’ And then you have other issues such as eating disorders, or competing for a spot on the team. There’s more to the milieu than just standard academic advising that you get in a college office."

Jimenez agrees that non-athletics advisors at most campuses have very large caseloads. "We have the luxury of being able to focus on a few more details than people serving the whole campus are able to," he says.

Henry Villegas, Academic Coordinator for Intercollegiate Athletics at Indiana State University, works in the campus advising office but specializes in helping intercollegiate student-athletes. His position was moved from the athletic department to the campus advising center a few years ago, and he sees the advantages of the change.

"A lot of times, if you’re housed in athletics, there’s a perception that you’re trying to gain some favor for a student-athlete," Villegas says. "When you come from the academic side, they see you as an academic support person from the university who is there to provide support services for student-athletes. We’re also able to better collaborate with others on campus, and our facilities are a lot better than when we were over in athletics. Plus, our student-athletes have the same tutors as other students at the university, and this helps them integrate with the rest of the student population."

Some schools are trying to reap the benefits of both approaches by having advisors working with athletes report to both the athletic department and the campus-wide advising office. After 14 years in student-athlete services at Iowa State University, Steve McDonnell joined Texas A&M University in 1999 as Associate Athletic Director for Academic Services. "One of the things that attracted me to this job was the dual-reporting relationship," he says. "I report through the athletics department, and I report to the associate provost for undergraduate programs. So I report to both the academic and athletic sides of the institution.

"To me, this has been a very healthy model, and I think you’re going to see more programs around the country going in this direction or reporting exclusively outside athletics," he continues. "I work with both parts of the institution on a daily basis, so it makes sense to report that way, as well."

McDonnell concedes that additional challenges come with answering to two bosses, but in his case the bosses get along well. "It works because we’ve developed a strong relationship with a lot of dialogue," he explains. "It’s really been an education for the academic side of the institution to learn more about what we do on a day-to-day basis, as well as for the athletic side to learn more about the academic side. More than anything, our role is to be a liaison between the athletic department and the academic community."

As McDonnell alludes to, with the academic bar being raised, the communication bar must go up with it and cover a wide range of people. Student-athletes themselves need to understand the rules regarding academic progress. Outsiders, such as faculty members, campus counselors, and advisors in academic units, must be in tune with NCAA rules. But one group is especially important: coaches. They need to know how reform is affecting academic support because their roles are crucial in meeting the standards.

"The perception I have is that coaches are putting a lot of trust in the academic-support staff to take care of the student-athletes," says Villegas. "I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, because there are some excellent people in this field, and they’re used to challenges and to having a lot of the responsibility.

"But it’s definitely a team effort, and coaches play a big part," Villegas continues. "I can tell kids to do this and that, but if coaches don’t enforce it, it doesn’t happen. The coaches provide the discipline behind the things we do."

Marlowe puts it this way: "For student-athletes who don’t buy in, who don’t have an attitudinal change about academic success, what will change their attitude right away is playing time. We don’t control that. Coaches do. If they’re not going to class and not doing what they need to in tutorial support, coaches need to take away playing time. It’s what the student-athletes understand."

But academic success is not just about discipline. It’s also about setting priorities, and that requires the coach’s involvement, too, Marlowe says. With decreased academic wiggle room to maintain eligibility, and with the possibility of penalties for faltering team GPAs and graduation rates, coaches have to realize that it’s in their long-term interest to allow the occasional skipped practice to complete a paper or study for an exam.

Marlowe suggests a basketball scenario where a coach schedules media interviews at tournament time, just as mid-term exams loom. The advisor reminds the coach about the impending tests, but the coach replies, "Let ’em have some fun."

"You know what happens at the end of the spring? They get a report saying the kid’s not eligible next year," Marlowe says. "The coaches usually say to the advisor, ‘This is your fault.’ So I reply, ‘Coach, I told you back in March the kid was sliding, but you let him go to every single interview and photo op. You can’t do that. You’re not setting a climate for the kid to be able to look forward."

The best scenario, academic advisors say, is having a coach who is willing to share responsibility for academic success. "Sometimes departments hire study-table monitors to walk around and make sure kids are doing what they’re supposed to," says Marlowe. "But there are some coaches who say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. We’ve recruited young people who are supposed to be responsible young men and women, and if there’s a problem, our coaches will go in and check on it.’ That’s when you start to build successful programs—when coaches understand they need to partner with their academic advisor."

Another reason coaches need to be more involved in academic support and understand eligibility requirements is so they can use the information to inform their recruiting. Many academic advisors feel that by putting less emphasis on test scores, the new initial eligibility standards will make it easier for athletes who are not well-prepared for college coursework to play, and coaches need to understand the ramifications of bringing in these players. The combination of less-prepared athletes and more rigorous continuing eligibility standards will put a lot of pressure on the academic support unit.

"It’s going to be a challenge for some schools," says Jimenez. "They’re going to have to take a good look at themselves and decide if they have the proper resources. Not only do schools have to make sure the students are getting everything they need to succeed in the classroom, but they must have the proper resources to monitor their athletes’ academic progress much more frequently. And if they don’t, maybe they need to recruit better-prepared student-athletes. There could be some penalties on the other end that could affect them if they don’t recruit correctly."

This is where the athletic director’s involvement becomes crucial. He or she must assess whether academic support has the resources to match each sport program’s recruiting philosophy.

In Marlowe’s view, it’s just like building winning sports teams. "If you want to win a national championship, and the best coach out there is going to cost you $1.5 million a year—you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is," he says. "That’s the direction we’re heading in academic support. If you want the best people in the field, if you want people who understand what needs to be done and how to design these programs for success, it’s going to cost you. And along with that comes computer labs and hiring, training, and evaluating tutors. As long as Division I-A athletics is around and we have academic support, that is not going to go away."

The athletic director also has to help hold the coach accountable. "An athletic director has to be very clear with coaches across the board, not just in revenue-producing sports," says Marlowe. "He or she has to say, ‘If I support you bringing in a kid who’s going to be at-risk academically, you as the coach have a responsibility to make sure he or she is doing what he or she is supposed to do. And if the evidence shows that you aren’t on it, if you aren’t sitting a kid when he or she should be, it’s hard for me to keep you in your job.’"

One point athletic directors should be sure to make with coaches, some advisors say, is that academics is not just about eligibility, and the academic-support staff is not there for the purpose of keeping student-athletes in the lineup. Most advisors entered the field to help young people turn their athletic talents into an education and resent having the focus turn to eligibility alone.

"I think there’s sometimes a mistaken belief that academic support counselors and advisors are supposed to keep kids eligible," Marlowe says. "When I hear that, I cringe. Our job is not to keep a kid eligible. That’s what the rules are for. The rules are there to set the standard these student-athletes are supposed to meet. But those are minimums. They’re not, and they shouldn’t be, the goal."

Adds McDonnell: "As I always tell student-athletes and staff, ‘Eligibility is not the goal. It’s the by-product of doing the right thing academically. If you’re doing the things academically you need to do to stay on track to graduate, you’ll basically be eligible.’ It’s not the goal. It’s the by-product."

Coaches at two-year schools, and those who recruit there, need to understand how the continuing progress rules affect the junior college recruiting process. In many ways, academic reform is toughest on student-athletes who attend junior colleges and hope to transfer to four-year institutions.

To transfer to a four-year school after two years and play immediately, a student must have completed 40 percent of the coursework required to earn a degree in his or her major at the new school. That’s the same continuing-eligibility standard as for student-athletes who started at a four-year school, but a huge jump from the previous transfer requirement, which was 25 percent of degree requirements, or 24 transferable credit units, along with having been at the two-year college for two full years.

The crucial term for two-year transfers, however, is "transferable credits." Potential transfers must have a good idea of what they want to major in at a four-year school—and what four-year school they want to move to—almost as soon as they start at the two-year school.

"It’s an educated guess," says Evans Roderick, Academic Counselor for Student-Athletes at California’s Mount San Antonio College and Chair of the N4A Committee on Two-Year Colleges. "You can have 120 units for a degree in psychology at one school, and it can be 125, 128, or 129 somewhere else. So getting that 40 percent is going to be tricky. The average for a degree, as I understand it, is 120 hours. That’s 48 transferable units after four full-time terms.

"We have to do a better job at the two-year-college level, or unfortunately even at the high school level, to force these kids into a major," Roderick continues, "or at least get them really working so they can make a decision on what their major might be. And God help them if they change it."

There are several ways to help junior-college athletes cope with NCAA requirements. None is a magic bullet for all student-athletes, but together, they should help. Mount San Antonio has a mandatory first-year life-planning course designed to help students decide on a major. California public community colleges are trying to reach agreements with the state’s four-year schools to help clarify transfer issues. They’re also encouraging student-athletes to graduate high school NCAA-qualified, so that they can leave a two-year school after one semester and play before the 40 percent continuing-eligibility requirement kicks in at their new school.

"We’re asking our recruits, ‘Have you filed with the NCAA clearinghouse?" says Roderick. "If not, ‘Here’s how to do it. Take that test [SAT or ACT] and let’s see if you can become a qualifier.’ Now, that doesn’t mean they’re all going to transfer after their freshman year. They’ve got to be good enough, but at least it gives them some options."

And then there’s gray-shirting. It’s a term for the practice of a student-athlete associating with a team but avoiding using up terms of athletic eligibility while taking courses that won’t transfer to a four-year institution. "You don’t go full-time during your initial year or first semester," Roderick explains. "You go part-time. You work on your remediation. You can practice with the team but just don’t play in any games. And then you start playing once you are taking transferable courses."

Nationally, academic advisors at two-year colleges are hoping to talk more with their counterparts and athletic directors at four-year schools to clarify issues, share ideas, and better coordinate matriculation standards. To that end, Roderick’s committee plans a summit with NCAA representatives this summer, as well as further discussions. A model may emerge in California, where the state’s Community College Counselors/Advisers Academic Association for Athletics (3C4A) is trying to reach agreement with the state’s public four-year schools to help standardize—or at least clarify—transfer standards.

In the meantime, two-year schools are trying to cope as best they can. "The problem is we don’t know what their majors are, we don’t know where they’re transferring until the last term, and so the specificity about the quantitative number of units they need is a crapshoot," Roderick says. "If they need summer school, we can program a few classes that way, but there’s a limit on how many units you can take in the summer."

The bottom line is that athletic directors, coaches, and academic advisors will need to work harder and smarter to keep up with academic reform. This entails identifying the at-risk student-athletes as soon as possible, implementing new ideas in mentoring, and coming up with better systems for tracking eligibility.

At Miami, advisors are trying to nip problems in the bud by preparing for any at-risk student-athletes well before they arrive on campus. "When high school student-athletes make official visits, we make notes, look at transcripts and test scores, and look for their strengths and weaknesses," says Walker. "With those who sign, we do more digging. We get seven-semester transcripts and look at more test scores. Our learning specialist determines who may need additional assessments when they arrive, because test scores don’t always indicate skill level."

Areas in which student-athletes typically need help aren’t anything new or surprising. "It’s time management, first and foremost," says McDonnell. "This isn’t unique to student-athletes, but they hit the ground running academically and athletically.

"The other thing student-athletes have to adjust to is the level of challenge," McDonnell continues. "I always tell our recruits, ‘You’re coming to a school with Division I athletic demands, and that’s far more than you ever had in high school. Well, it’s the same academically. So you need to be prepared for that.’ And we try to make sure they stay on track and meet those challenges."

"I’m going under the assumption that all freshmen are at risk," adds Villegas. "It’s not all academic preparation. There are valedictorians who fail out of college their first year."

Many athletic support units mandate first-year orientation courses for their athletes, either through general university offerings or in-house. At Miami, in addition to a freshman-experience course, all first-year student-athletes meet with their athletic-department academic advisors 30 minutes each week. "You may have kids who do great on homework assignments, but you figure out through those meetings that they have test anxiety," Walker says. "Those one-on-one meetings give us an idea of them as a person—how they’re doing in class and whether they are making that transition from high school to college."

A key tactic in smoothing the transition is mentoring. At Indiana State, a new mentoring program pairs freshmen with fifth-year seniors. "We’ve been able to match every one of our freshman student-athletes with a mentor," says Villegas. "I believe a very important part of their being successful is having somebody who knows the ropes, not just around campus but also the academic side. It’s not a huge expenditure for us, but a change in the way we allocate our resources to meet the changing need."

Indiana State first-year student-athletes also go to study halls—which are now called academic enrichment. "They’re required to spend a set number of hours each week in our academic enrichment center," says Villegas. "They’re spending time either with tutors, in study halls, or in computer labs. They don’t just come here and get left on their own. Doing most of the work outside class time is a huge transition for many freshmen. So as much as possible we try to structure that time, at least early on. From the moment they get here we want to make sure that they get in the habit of studying."

Once the first year is behind them, however, student-athletes still need monitoring. In fact keeping track of academic progress during each term is the area Jimenez is most concerned about. "That’s going to be the big one," Jimenez says. "We’re going to have to have some additional resources just to track everyone’s status."

At the University at Albany, the academic support staff has developed a Web-based individual study plan. Student-athletes enter information about each course each week, including the objectives, any tests or assignments, meetings with professors, and any problems that come up. A form is produced for each student-athlete and completed forms go to his or her advisor.

"We have about 450 athletes, and there are two of us in academic support, so there’s not enough hours in the day to meet with them all," says Academic Services Director Julie Steinke. "The Web-based form gives us a way we can keep in touch with them. They don’t have to come to our office to do it, but we can at least keep track of them and hold them accountable for what they’re doing. And it keeps them aware of where they stand. They themselves can see when they’re slipping."

In early spring, Walker starts to prepare final-year student-athletes at Miami for May graduation. It’s exciting. But she also has to check in with her swimmers and divers, whose season is ending. Football players are busy with spring practice, and she can’t let her attention slip with them, either. She ponders academic reform, admits she and colleagues elsewhere have their work cut out for them, but concludes, "We’ll survive."

Villegas, too, knows that meeting the reform standards will take additional patience, work, and attention. "We’re going to meet the challenges. It’s just going to require everyone to work a little bit harder," he says. "But you have to look at the output. I think it’s really going to help with our graduation rates."

For academic-support professionals, says McDonnell, it’s a time to keep doing what they’re already doing—just better. "The real issue for me and my colleagues around the country is to stay the course in trying to assure that we’re providing quality programs with integrity," he says. "We need to provide the kind of resources to assure that our student-athletes have every opportunity to succeed academically but still leave the student-athletes accountable for their own academic progress."

Web Resources

The University at Albany’s Academic Services form:

A summary of the NCAA’s recent academic reform initiatives:

A white paper on the NCAA’s incentives-disincentives plan (PDF format):

Signs of Good Support

Should high school athletes being recruited check out the academic support services each university provides? Yes, say academic advisors, who suggest asking questions about tutors and visiting the facilities.

The first question to ask is about numbers of tutors. There is no definitive proper ratio of student-athletes to advisors or tutors, but it’s worth finding out how many teams each advisor is assigned. From those numbers, you can compare one school to another.

It’s also worth asking how tutors are screened and trained. For example, the University of Miami certifies its tutors through the College Learning and Reading Association, says Carol Walker, an academic advisor at the school.

The academic support unit should have specialists, such as those trained to help with learning disabilities, either in-house or through close connections with the rest of campus. There should also be a program for helping first-year students make the transition from high school and for helping if academic trouble arises.

Facilities are also a consideration, just as in athletics. Ask about the size and number of study carrels and computer workstations and whether the center is open at night and on weekends after student-athletes are finished with practice and competitions.

But perhaps the best way to judge an academic-support operation is to visit and observe. "When I walk into academic support centers that I visit, one thing I’m looking at is the energy in the facility—are students happy, or are they walking around drained and not feeling good?" says Demetrius Marlowe, President of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics and Assistant to the Vice President for Student Affairs and Services at Michigan State University. "Do they seem to say, ‘Oh, gee, I’ve got to go to a tutor,’ or are they excited. Do they come to the center with as much excitement as they do practice?"

If the vibe is positive, says Marlowe, then there’s probably two things in play there: integrity and a service student-athletes value. "Why do you buy a certain brand of sneakers? They feel good. They produce. There’s a good feeling," he says. "It’s the same with academic support."

Course Combos

One of the most difficult aspects of an academic counselor’s job is steering student-athletes toward the right combination of courses. It’s a mix of pushing them hard and making sure they remain realistic about what a student-athlete can accomplish. That job is getting a lot tougher, however, due both to NCAA academic reform and mainstream student trends at today’s universities.

New NCAA rules require athletes to maintain better progress to degree completion. The "40-60-80" rule requires an athlete to complete 40 percent of his or her major degree requirements for his or her third year of competition, then 60 and 80 for the fourth and fifth years.

This means counselors need to help student-athletes match their ambitions with reality, says Tomas Jimenez, Assistant Athletic Director for Academics at the University of Miami. "You want to make sure the students have the best experience possible educationally," he says. "We will never tell a student they can’t major in something or what to study. School’s all about making choices—and a big one is deciding what you want to study. But we have to be honest with our students about what it’s going to take to complete a particular course of study. The advisor’s job is to make sure they understand the curriculum and to tell them, ‘This combination of courses might not be the best. Yes, you’re out of season, but this is a really heavy load for you academically.’"

"They’re in a sport 20 hours a week and tired, but I still have to find the right combination of courses," says Demetrius Marlowe, President of the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics, and Special Assistant to the Provost at Michigan State University. "This is harder and harder with courses being cut from the curriculum because of budget cuts and accreditation. You don’t have ‘soft’ courses anymore."

Another challenge concerns higher standards for the general student population in certain majors. Steve McDonnell, Associate Athletic Director for Academic Services at Texas A&M University, says that as more students apply to college, many academic departments are tightening standards for admission into certain majors.

"They have way too many people trying to get in, and they have to put a lid on it," he says. "So they make the criteria to enroll in that department or degree a bit higher. Students who are in the lower range of grade-point averages find their choices of majors are very limited. It’s a trend around the country, and in my opinion, student-athletes are a small subset of that."

That phenomenon then leads to more "major clustering," whereby student-athletes cluster in majors that are seen as less difficult academically to fulfill. This is certainly not a new trend, but one that may be exacerbated by NCAA and institutional changes.