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Are We Limiting Academic Opportunities For Our Student-Athletes?

By Farah Ishaq, PhD, SUNY-Cortland; Jordan Bass, PhD, University of Kansas

Adapted from Ishaq, F. J. & Bass, J. (2019). High impact educational practices and the student athlete experience: The implementation and barriers of HIPs in the student athlete support setting. Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, 12, 178-204.


Given the increasing spotlight on the relationship between higher education and intercollegiate athletics, we know that intercollegiate athletics has grown even more popular with more than 460,000 student-athletes competing in 24 sports at the NCAA level. Furthermore, the NCAA continues to net record revenues surpassing one billion dollars for the first time in its existence, largely attributable to $821 million in revenue from television and marketing deals. It is evident that across NCAA institutions there is immense value placed on the success of athletic programs of these institutions; however, is the value placed on athletics too strong and, ultimately, shifts the focus away from academics? What can institutions and athletic departments do to help draw additional, impactful resources towards both academic and athletic success?


It is unfortunate that constant negative media attention exists during these times of scandal, while little media attention is placed on strong academic performances and practices that are or can be implemented in the student-athlete environment. This is where we saw an opportunity to explore effective high-impact educational practices that are prevalent within the higher education community and understand how they are applied within the intercollegiate athletic environment.


Ten high-impact educational practices have been identified by higher education researchers as effective in providing positive educational results for students from diverse backgrounds across several institutions. High-impact educational practices (HIPs) consist of the following 10 practices: (1) First-Year Seminars and Experiences, (2) Common Intellectual Experiences, (3) Learning Communities, (4) Writing-Intensive Courses, (5) Collaborative Assignments and Projects, (6) Undergraduate Research, (7) Diversity/Global Learning, (8) Service Learning, Community-Based Learning, (9) Internships, and (10) Capstone Courses and Projects. The Association of American Colleges & Universities provides a great resource on high-impact practices, including additional descriptions of each with a PDF download brochure and publications regarding these practices.


We determined that the best way to produce appropriate results was via interviews with athletic staff. These staff members ranged from academic advisors to athletic directors in academics or related student-athlete support services role. We identified 12 participants across six different NCAA Division I institutions willing to discuss high-impact educational practices in their athletic departments.


Specifically, we wanted to look at these practices for student-athletes by addressing how they can be implemented into the student-athlete academic setting and what barriers, both on the administrative and student-athlete level, affect the implementation of these important practices. In order to most effectively study the student-athlete academic environment, we thought it was appropriate to connect with athletic academic staff on the issue. While high-impact educational practices are quite prevalent within higher education research, many participants were not aware of what these practices were. Therefore, brief descriptions were provided in an effort to help connect these practices to the student-athlete environment.


It is important to note that our conversations were intended to be semi-structured in nature, meaning that as researchers, we were able to follow-up throughout the interview process as a way of digging deeper in our conversations to produce more rich information within each athletic department. If you are interested specifically in the questions that were asked, we have provided an interview guide found in the downloadable version of this study from the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics. While we were able to determine a set of several themes, additional representative quotes that we found relevant and interesting are available in the full study.


Barriers to Implementation of High-Impact Educational Practices 


After analyzing the data that we collected, it was clear that several themes emerged relating to the implementation of high impact educational practices in the student-athlete setting along with possible barriers that exist. These barriers included university control of implementation of high-impact educational practices, differences in attitudes of coaches versus athletic directors, time constraints, lack of funding or resources, and athletics-campus relationships. Before further addressing what we found, some of these barriers may already strike home to you as athletic directors and administrators in intercollegiate athletic departments.


We know from our higher education colleagues that the high-impact educational practices studied suggest positive outcomes with appropriate implementation; however, with our work on the student-athlete side of things, it is clear that barriers do exist for implementation and participation. However, of greatest importance is that fact that these results will allow athletics academic staff to optimize the high-impact educational practices that are available for student-athletes and work with both athletics staff and campus administration to increase overall access to their students by helping to limit the barriers to implementation.


One of the principal barriers to student-athlete participation in high-impact educational practices was a disconnect between the athletic department and academic administration on-campus. The latter generally controls high-impact educational practices, while we were able to determine that athletic departments either don’t know about high-impact educational practices, don’t know who to contact to help students take part in these practices and a lack of communication between the two administrations.


For example, in reference to first year experiences, an athletic director noted their international students had to attend three separate first-year seminars or experiences – one through their college, one for international students, and one through the athletic department. Of the three, only one is the responsibility of the athletic department. This combined with the time commitment to be a student-athlete makes it difficult to expect further participation in high-impact educational practices outside of first-year seminars and experiences.


With university control over a significant number of high-impact educational practices, their understanding of athletics academics unit, and the programming occurring within that environment, is essential. One institution, for example, had to go through the university for approval of first year programming courses for the student-athletes. Ultimately, collegiate athletic departments do not have control over many high-impact educational practices; however, they can still work as advocates to the implementation of such programming and work on providing the appropriate resources necessary for their student-athletes to be able to make participation in these practices possible.


It is likely, however, that many university administrators have concerns regarding athletics control over such programming due to controversies and scandals that have previously surrounded athletic departments. Particularly with cases that have encompassed large, well-known universities, it is unlikely that universities will extend full control to athletic departments. These scandals combined with strong media attention on intercollegiate athletic department scandals make for difficult decisions across institutions in how they handle academic programming within athletic departments.


The most obvious barrier that we see within athletic departments is the time restraints exhibited by student-athletes. As you are aware, participation in intercollegiate athletics demands a lot of a student-athlete’s time, and several administrators noted that their student-athletes did not have time to take part in high-impact educational practices. Unfortunately, we also know that the implementation of high-impact educational practices also requires a significant amount of time and effort, which is further affected by the lack of time available to thousands of students participating in intercollegiate athletics. On top of this, as many of you can likely relate, scheduling certain programs or activities for student-athletes to participate in can be nearly impossible with their schedules, especially in larger athletic programs. However, one athletic director suggested scheduling multiple sessions or utilizing more reasonable alternatives like multicultural or diversity programming rather than just promoting a study abroad trip.


In order to assist in the implementation of high-impact educational practices, we think this mindset must be prevalent for administrators to help minimize barriers on all levels, particularly time. While time plays a large role in the prevention of high-impact educational practice opportunities, coaches also contribute the overall issue at hand and did not always support participation in high-impact educational practices, particularly when the student-athletes are in-season.


We do not believe all coaches have this mindset; however, many coaches are primarily interested in the athletic success of their student-athletes, particularly when we talk about revenue-generating sports. One of the people the student-athletes look up to the most is their coach, but is that coach letting them know about academic opportunities or are student-athletes primarily relying on their academic advisors or teammates? Unfortunately, we discovered that coaches can sometimes exhibit negative roles when it comes to high-impact educational practices; however, many administrators interviewed know the importance of coaches and considered them as “part of the education experience, not separate from it,” where academic staff is responsible for providing the resources and coaches are responsible for providing the appropriate accountability for their student-athletes. It all begins with making student-athletes aware of the expectations of the coaches and academic department.


By understanding coaches as barriers to the implementation of high-impact educational practices, we believe administrators must work with both the coaches and student-athletes to ensure that there is ample opportunity for participation in high-impact educational practices, including study abroad. While study abroad during the season might not be attainable, administrators, athletes, and coaches must be able to offer flexibility and an understanding of student-athlete schedule and eligibility to ensure resources are available if athletes are truly interested in participation.


Other barriers exist, including whether an athlete is in-season or off-season and whether they participate in a revenue-generating sport or not. For example, it is difficult for football players to take part in study abroad during the summer as that is a busy time for conditioning ahead of the season. However, some of the sports like swimming, where training did not take place over the summer did not face as many challenges or pressures over the summer as those with necessary summer conditioning. Sports like basketball, soccer, and volleyball, where “coaches might get a little bit more involved in that decision because they want them here in July getting ready for the Fall season,” presented more restrictions.


What do we do from here? 


It is our hope that these results can be utilized by athletic directors to help improve overall access and implementation of high-impact educational practices in this unique setting for student-athletes. Not only did this study help identify barriers, but also created greater awareness of these practices and higher education theory for administrators. This additional awareness can be used throughout the decision-making process in student-athlete support services, academics, and beyond.


Particularly, administrators can utilize their own unique athletic programs in learning to understand whether the aforementioned barriers exist in their own personal settings and whether your athletic department exhibits other unique barriers outside the scope of this study. For example, administrators, both in athletics and on campus, can learn to establish relationships for their students on campus and create a comfortable climate and connection between athletics academics and on-campus resources. Furthermore, academic staff can identify opportunities to work with the coaches in order to shape an understanding for their students on the opportunities available and how to make them plausible around their schedules in an effort to reduce overall administrative and student-athlete barriers.


Applying these high-impact educational practices shows significant benefits for students from diverse backgrounds, especially minorities and students from underserved communities; however, these students are less likely to participate in such practices. As your institutions likely exhibit a diverse community of student-athletes, it is important not only to limit barriers, but also create a greater sense of awareness of the programs and resources available to them throughout their academic and athletic careers.


Student-athletes are frequently from diverse backgrounds, but they also may feel secluded, less integrated within the general campus community, and part of this so-called “athletics bubble.” We make recommendations for how student-athletes could be better included in high-impact educational practices, including making opportunities such as study abroad more accessible in shorter terms, increasing collaboration between athletic and academic units, and standardizing reporting lines from athletics to academics.


Notably, it is possible that greater access to high-impact educational practices for your student-athletes could help eliminate opportunities for academic scandals within athletics from programs trying to keep their student-athletes academically eligible. If more resources, or even just simple awareness of existing resources, to help students are prevalent throughout the athletic department, staff could be steered into more appropriate and genuine opportunities. Limiting barriers to implementation of high-impact educational practices will extend far beyond the playing field for an individual athlete into their professional career development outside their respective sports.