Authored by: Lisa M. Rubin
There are hundreds of thousands of student-athletes participating in college athletics at every type of institution: two-year, four-year, private, and public. Student-athletes enjoy a unique college experience that balances athletic participation, the pursuit of an advanced degree, and involvement in extracurricular activities. Advisors working with student-athletes need to approach this special population differently given a variety of factors these students face when navigating campuses. Student-athletes arrive on college campuses with a variety of academic backgrounds, demographic and profile characteristics, and preparation for college life. Advising this diverse student population requires an individual approach.
Student-athletes coming to campuses, like all other students, face transition issues, whether they are incoming freshmen or transfer students. Besides a new academic environment, these students’ time is dedicated to participation in their sport, which comes with new relationships. Students interact with coaches, teammates, athletic department staff, and of course, staff and faculty. Unlike many other students, student-athletes are subject to stereotypes and assumptions about their academic performance, ability to do college-level work, and behavior outside of the field/court/arena and classroom (Valentine & Taub, 1999). On every campus, there are faculty and staff that do not like having student-athletes in their classes or offices, and for some students, this is a tough stereotype to break.
Considerations for Advising Student-Athletes: Factors
Due to student-athletes’ commitment to their athletic pursuits, their identity is often entangled with their athletic talent and performance rather than with grades in a class or involvement in a student organization. This does not mean student-athletes only care about their sport, but for some students, participation in athletics started at a very young age, so it is hard to separate their identity from their athletic abilities. Because college is a time for students to develop their identity, as evidenced by Chickering and Reisser’s (1993) Identity Development Theory, advisors can play an essential role in helping student-athletes develop with a focus on other aspects, such as academic success and preparation for a career after graduation. There are several factors of student-athletes that advisors should consider.
There are many dimensions of diversity on campus. Student-athletes come from every background and location to college campuses. Demographic and profile characteristics that could affect student-athletes include gender, race, sport, sport type (revenue and non-revenue), team type (team and individual), nationality, and sexual orientation. Female student-athletes have different experiences as compared to male student-athletes. There is generally more attention given to men’s sports. Research (e.g., Kiger & Lorentzen, 1993; Meyer, 1990) has shown that female student-athletes perform better academically than male student-athletes, and that women’s teams provide a strong support structure to encourage academic success among participants. In contrast, male athletes, especially in the revenue sports of football and basketball, struggle academically and often come to college underprepared for college-level work (Adler & Adler, 1985; Adler & Adler, 1987; Purdy, Eitzen, & Hufnagel, 1982). Revenue sports are the most high profile college sports, and due to their popularity, student-athletes may be recruited to campus with academic profiles below the institutional admission standards. Advisors are then faced with a challenging task of working with these students toward success while dealing with remediation or academic deficiencies. Kiger and Lorentzen (1993) found that students participating in individual sports like golf or tennis perform better academically than team sport athletes.
Race also is a major factor in student-athlete identity and performance. Many of the negative stereotypes surrounding student-athletes are connected to Black males. Football and men’s basketball are dominated by Black male students, and at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs), these students stand out for athletic abilities rather than academic prowess. Singer (2008) found that Black male football players at a PWI struggled to combat stereotypes because of their time commitment to football. The students insisted that if they had more time for academics, they would be dedicated toward their courses and earning a degree (Singer, 2008). However, the time available to work on academic-related activities after football commitments were complete each day was too limited.
Another consideration for advisors is working with international student-athletes. These students have to juggle visa paperwork, international admissions standards, NCAA rules that are foreign, and sometimes, even ESL courses to become a member of the campus community. Often, the transition is overwhelming and difficult, and these students must also build relationships with teammates, coaches, and campus staff.
Student-athletes who identify as LGBTQ may also face additional stereotypes, challenges, and pressures on top of all of these other factors. Menke, McGill, and Fletcher (2015) provided valuable information and implications for advisors about these students in the NACADA Clearinghouse article Advising LGBTQ Athletes.
Considerations for Advising Student-Athletes: Strategies and Knowledge
Successfully advising student-athletes requires collaboration across campus. Advisors in student-athlete advising centers should regularly communicate with campus (centralized), college, and/or major-specific academic advisors. Advisors outside of student-athlete advising centers should maintain contact with advisors designated for student-athletes. Other departments (e.g., disability services, career services, admissions, international students and scholars office, tutoring center, counseling center) should also collaborate with advising offices to ensure student-athlete success on campus. The National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics (N4A) (2013) published a document entitled Best Practices for Academic Integrity that encourages cross-collaboration on campus to ensure student-athletes can successfully pursue their academic interests. There are several areas of knowledge that will benefit any advisor who will have a student-athlete advisee.
Rules Governing Student-Athletes
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) oversees the majority of college sports, including Divisions I, II, and III. The NCAA’s member institutions have over 400,000 student-athlete participants in athletic programs. Other major organizations that govern college athletics include the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Thus student-athletes not only must meet and follow standards set forth by their institutions, but also those of their athletic conference and the NCAA, NJCAA, or NAIA. The default rule is the most stringent one between the institution, conference, and governing body on a particular topic (e.g., for some progress-toward-degree requirements, the NCAA requires a minimum grade point average below most institutions' minimum 2.0 for students to be in good standing so the institution’s standard would supersede the NCAA’s standard).
The NCAA Division I manual is an example of a rulebook that is full of jargon so complex that athletic departments have compliance offices to interpret and enforce the rules, and educate staff members about the rules. In this manual, bylaw 14 covers academic regulations including initial and continuing eligibility, transfer rules, grade requirements, and other related topics. Any advisor working with student-athletes should become familiar with bylaw 14, whether through self-study or compliance education offered in the athletic department. Often, institutional standards exceed the academic standards of the NCAA, but sometimes admissions offices make exceptions for students who have athletic talent, so advisors may have students who are underprepared for the rigor of courses offered.
N4A published a Code of Ethics for advisors of student-athletes. Though there has been media attention towards the idea of academic clustering, advisors working with student-athletes should never push students toward a major because it is convenient for a time schedule or because of its perceived easiness. The N4A (2011) emphasized, “The student should be allowed to enroll in the program he or she chooses. Students should never be forced into programs not of their choosing, merely to ensure eligibility” (p. 2). N4A (2013) also has “an unyielding commitment to academic integrity” (p. 4). There is a focus on empowering student-athletes to challenge themselves academically, develop outside of their sport, prepare for graduation, and make important decisions for themselves (N4A, 2013). This means not doing things for student-athletes such as choosing their major or courses without their input or having complete control over their schedule and time allotment for activities outside of their sport.
Student-athletes, like other students coming to campus, may have documented or undiagnosed learning disabilities. If a student have expired paperwork from high school or is showing signs of academic struggles, advisors should be able to refer the student for testing and diagnosis, whether on campus or in the community. Once a student is tested and receives specific information, he or she can have access to more services that will be beneficial in the classroom. A student-athlete may never be referred to testing because of the negative stereotypes about student-athletes and academic ability (Lane et al., 2001). Working with a student who is diagnosed with a learning disability may require advisors to set up regular meetings with the student and a disability center counselor, and for advisors to educate coaches so there is an understanding of the student’s academic level and the resources he or she needs to access to be successful, especially if that takes away from practice or workout times.
Mental Health and Identity Foreclosure
Student-athletes face many pressures and challenges in the athletic world. There is always a pressure to win, be the best, go above and beyond, and be a star. With identity so closely linked to athletic talent coupled with such intense pressure, many students face mental health issues. Some athletic departments have mental health counselors, but for institutions that do not, the campus counseling center is a good place to refer student-athletes. With limited professional opportunities, student-athletes inevitably must prepare for life after sport, often signaling the end of their athletic career. Student-athletes may face identity foreclosure because of the strong connection to athletic ability, so advisors should prepare student-athletes early in their enrollment for career development and extracurricular activities. Starting early advising student-athletes of these resources will aid students’ transition out of sport upon graduation or after exhausting eligibility. Advisors can collaborate with career services to develop resources specific for student-athletes, such as resumes tailored to their transferable athletic skills.
Student-athletes are a unique population on campus with various backgrounds and experiences. Advisors are in a position to greatly enhance student-athletes’ college experience by guiding students toward academic pursuits of their choice, encouraging them to develop a holistic identity, and providing them resources for success during and after college. Through campus collaboration, advisors can ensure student-athletes have the necessary resources to be successful given time limitations for activities outside of their athletic participation. By empowering student-athletes, advisors will help student-athletes manage their difficult schedule independently and can truly impact their academic and future success.
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