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Using Exit Interviews and Surveys to Understand the Division I Athlete Academic Experience

By Molly Harry, Ph.D., Virginia

Since 1991, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has required member institutions to do exit interviews or surveys (EIS) with departing athletes, but it was not until recently that these documents were made public.


Athlete EIS for the 2018-2019 academic year became public after The Intercollegiate, a public-service journalism platform that reports on college athletics, filed records requests for every Division I institution subject to public disclosure laws. While many schools denied access, some complied, offering thousands of pages of documents with athletes’ experiences and narratives within.


Recently, I mined these documents for a piece in the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport examining this unique higher education phenomenon: access to the athlete experience through athletes’ own eyes.


Given the many criticisms of college athletics noting the hyper-commercialization of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and the resulting emphasis on athletics over education, the focus of this research was on the academic experiences of athletes within the FBS. The purpose of this work was to uncover two areas: (1) academic topics discussed in exit interviews and surveys; and (2) what athletes say about their academic experiences.


Under NCAA bylaw 6.3, the institution can select which athletes participate in this process, but it mandates that all sports be included and that athletes have exhausted eligibility at their institution. This helps ensure participants can be honest in their communication, and it also distinguishes this process from end-of-season EIS in which most athletes return to their respective programs. Additionally, athletic departments choose who administers EIS, as long as they are not a coach.


The institutional autonomy—enabling institutions to select the athletes who participate, who conducts the EIS, what questions to ask, and how the information is used—makes the EIS process inherently vague and inconsistent. In spite of this, EIS offer athletes an opportunity to share their experiences and be heard by athletics leaders; thus, examination of EIS presents a unique avenue to value the voices of athletes in understanding how intercollegiate athletics function.


To analyze the academic topics discussed in exit interviews and surveys and what athletes say about their academic experiences, I explored the EIS of 17 FBS institutions and 528 athletes. Of these institutions and athletes, six and 127 respectively came from the Power Five. To protect the anonymity of the respondents, neither The Intercollegiate nor I released athlete identity or institutional affiliation. Because of these protective measures, limited demographic information is available about most of these athletes including sport, sex, and race. Still, critical data can be gathered from these instruments.


Instrument & Content. Document analysis revealed five major categories that institutions inquired about concerning athlete academics:

  1.     Academic services (n = 16)
  2.     Overall academic experience (n = 14)
  3.     Time demands (n = 11)
  4.     Head coach academic support (n = 8)
  5.     Faculty support (n = 3)


The most common academic question pertained to academic support services provided by the athletic department. These questions included discussing advising quality, resources, and experiences with study hall or tutors. Some questions were open-ended and allowed athletes to elaborate, and others were closed-ended Likert questions (i.e., “On a scale of one to ten rate your experience with academic support.”). The prevalence of questions concerning academic support is unsurprising as the NCAA has increased its focus on academics, and athletic departments have provided more money and resources to these areas. Similarly, recent academic scandals may demonstrate a need to pay closer attention to these programs.


The next most popular topics concerned overall academic experiences and time demands. These questions varied in style with many programs opting for closed-ended Likert-style questions to examine the overall academic experience (i.e., “Rate your overall academic experience.”) and more open-ended questions for time demands (i.e., “Was your practice/competition schedule ever a hindrance to you academically?”).


The final two topics covered by EIS questions pertained to the academic support of head coaches and faculty, and the questions in these areas were predominantly closed-ended. Scholarship continues to note the importance of these groups in the academic lives of athletes through identity development and providing critical information and support. Due to the significance of coach-athlete and faculty-athlete dyads, further knowledge about these relationships can be obtained through EIS if the questions exist and are structured appropriately.


Numerous implications exist within these documents and their structure. The topics and nature of the questions asked demonstrate what institutions and athletic departments perceive to be important and where they place their attention. The 17 FBS schools in this sample asked 637 questions, but only 14% of these questions related to academics. If collegiate athletes are student-athletes, we might expect more questions inquiring about this role. Athletic departments could learn more about ways to assist athletes in accomplishing their off-the-field goals by increasing the number of questions pertaining to their student roles.


Additionally, allowing athletes to expand upon their educational experiences through open-ended questions facilitates a deeper understanding of these areas for the athletic department, while encouraging athletes to be honest. Roughly half of the questions in the above categories provided the chance to elaborate. Providing an opportunity to elaborate on more questions would signal that the leadership is interested in learning more about the athlete experience in regard to each topic.


The NCAA and member institutions’ investment in this process could be improved in two ways: 1) by standardizing the EIS process so that institutions can learn from each other, and 2) by encouraging athletes to complete the EIS themselves, rather than having it filled out by a representative. As scholars and practitioners continue to compare the experiences of college athletes across sports, schools, and divisions, having a uniform EIS would lead to more accurate comparisons and analyses. Schools, however, could still have autonomy to ask institution-specific questions. Additionally, even though the representative conducting the EIS may not be a coach, there could still be power dynamics at play. Having the athlete complete the EIS on their own helps mitigate those dynamics and ensures more honesty and accuracy in the results.


Athlete Academic Experiences. The athletes in this sample indicated that they enjoyed their college academic experiences. Of the athletes who were asked about their overall academic experience, 4% contended that their experience was average with some expressing issues with finding classes or transferring courses. The remaining 96% noted that they had a good or excellent experience. For example, one athlete stated, “I loved it. Going to school and playing was difficult, but it was the best four years of my life.” Another added, “Academically [insert institution] has given me every opportunity to succeed and discover my passion. Very grateful for all that I’ve learned here.”


These findings challenge the current negative narrative on the educational experiences of college athletes and the claims of incompatibility between education and sports. If education takes a backseat to athletics as many scholars assert, one might expect athletes to express more academic dissatisfaction. However, it appears that the majority of athletes felt they took advantage of their time in college to academically integrate and find passions in the classroom.


Out of the entire sample, roughly 83% of athletes responded to questions about academic support programs, and almost 99% said these services were of good or excellent quality. One athlete noted: “This environment is hands down the most supportive environment I have ever been in.” Some athletes did express poor experiences with their academic support programs such as feelings of aggravation when they could not enroll in courses they requested or felt that advisors were “putting athletes in classes just to stay eligible.” Previous work has addressed the potential downsides of academic support services for athletes such as isolation and an emphasis on eligibility over education, but this group of athletes mostly offered a counter narrative, finding their advisors and resources to be critical to their success and even “life savers.” Knowing athletes’ attitudes toward these programs can help tailor these resources to enhance their academic support. Similarly, the anecdotes of these athletes bolster the idea that academic support programs can provide appropriate levels of challenge and support for their athletes, adding to the respectability and value of these programs.


Athletes were commonly asked about balancing time demands, and much literature highlights the struggles many face in balancing sport and coursework. In this sample, 42% found their time demands to be excellent, good, or not an issue. Athletes stated that school came first with one believing: “academics were always a top priority. We are STUDENT-athletes.” These results dispute some of the literature and media reports on time demands and that athletes are over-burdened by their roles as students and athletes. Eleven percent of the athletes in this sample did find time demands to be challenging. One stated: “I was not prepared enough for how difficult the time expectations of being a student‐athlete were going to be. I do not know, though, if there is any amount of teaching or preparation that can get you ready for that,” while another argued that being an athlete was “like having a part-time job.” Still, some found that time demands were just part of being a college athlete and said they learned time management and other skills because of their intense workload. Such beliefs support the life skills benefits that come with sport participation. 


Time demands are related to coach support of academics. Eighty percent of the athletes who were asked about head coach support believed their coach offered good or excellent support for their academic endeavors. One athlete said, “coaches in our program were very understanding when it came to classes and school and want us to be the best students we can be.” These responses counter anecdotes from other research noting that coaches stress athletics over academics. This support from coaches cannot be overstated as it is likely that more positive educational interactions with coaches can assist athletes in finding academic success and preparing for life after sport. Future EIS should expand on this area to facilitate continued academic development of athletes.


Additionally, 80% of the athletes asked about faculty support said this population was helpful and positive during their collegiate careers. Faculty attitudes toward intercollegiate athletics are mixed, however, no athlete explicitly stated experiencing negative perceptions or being subjected to athlete stereotypes by faculty. In fact, athletes in this sample said professors were understanding about their schedules and potential class conflicts. One athlete even said they created “relationships with professors that will last forever.”


The goal of this research was to improve understanding of the athlete academic experience. Still, some important limitations of this work should be noted. The narratives and answers provided within the EIS were not substantiated by The Intercollegiate or myself and two assumptions were maintained: 1) the participants answered the questions honestly, and 2) if a representative completed the instrument for the athlete, they accurately reflected those athletes’ answers. Despite these limitations, because the data has been made publicly available by The Intercollegiate, reliability is maintained. Additionally, not all athletes in this sample were asked the same questions due to the autonomy of programs to construct their own instruments. Finally, this sample is not meant to be generalizable to the academic experiences of all college athletes.


Despite these limitations, this study can enhance understanding of the college athlete academic experience. Through EIS, practitioners can not only value the voices of their athletes, but also better understand their experiences and make improvements to their educational endeavors.