Do athletes get the same education as non-athletes?

This past weekend, I led prospective student-athletes and their parents on campus tours as part of the Future Garnet Baseball camp. One of the most common questions from both the parents and the prospects was “Do you think the athletes at Swarthmore receive the same education as the non-athletes here?” The frequency of this question wasn’t abnormal to just  me; I’ve asked other tour guides, and they’ve confirmed they’ve gotten that question a lot as well. In fact, it was the first question asked at an incoming student-athlete information session during orientation. Prospective student-athletes simply want to know how their education will compare to their non-athlete peers.

     The short answer is yes; our student-athletes receive a comparable education to our non-athletes. The long answer is a little more complicated, however.

     At Swarthmore, there is no question that academics are our first priority. We are not a sports-crazy school where all the student body seems to care about is football or basketball. When you Google “Swarthmore,” you get results about our academic prestige, whereas when you Google “Alabama,” it suggests “Crimson Tide Football.” When you take a look at these SEC and ACC powerhouses that are most notable for their athletics programs, you will notice that when you check their rosters, most football players will tend to have similar majors. At Georgia Tech, which is otherwise an academically excellent school, 16 of the 22 football starters are majoring in Management, according to a study done by the Wall Street Journal. School officials state that this isn’t because the Management major is “easier,” but it’s hard to believe that over 70 percent of their best players are in the same major by coincidence. This isn’t abnormal across similar schools. One-third of Clemson football players are Parks, Recreation, and Tourism majors. A similar amount of LSU football players are Sports Administration majors. You just need to look at the scandal that unfolded at UNC to see why this is a problem. For almost 18 years, a disproportionate amount of football and basketball players were enrolled in the Afro-American studies major, which consisted of “paper” courses where classes never met and all grades were based on essays written outside of class. According to Rashad McCants, a member of the 2005 national champion team at UNC, these athletes were conveniently provided with tutors who then wrote all of the papers for the athletes. Former UNC tutor Mary Willingham, who was the whistleblower that uncovered the scandal to the public, has said that the classes were a model for athletes to remain eligible with the NCAA, and at least four key members of the 2005 team heavily relied on these courses.

     We don’t have “Athlete” majors here at Swarthmore. Our athletes are spread amongst many departments, and many pursue double majors. Odds are there’s an athlete in every one of your classes, since one in five Swarthmore students are varsity athletes.

     In-season first-year athletes sometimes undergo a shock when they have to deal with balancing academics and athletics for the first time. It can be extremely different from what they were used to in high school. Upon being asked a few questions about her experience so far this season, Lelosa Aimufua ’20, a first-year on the Volleyball team, responded with some mixed feelings.

     “I don’t think any of my professors treat me differently, but I do feel the quality of my education is sometimes compromised due to my athletic commitment. It sometimes feels like I can’t be fully immersed in my academics just because there’s not enough hours in the day. I have to balance my academics with athletics, so I can’t completely immerse myself in either.”

     Aimufua continued, “Having the upperclassmen as a resource for help and having people to work on assignments with really helps you with the balancing.” She also said that her experience on the Volleyball team has been positive overall. Her responses to my question confirmed the idea that Swarthmore student-athletes think the biggest issue for them academically is a time constraint, but overall, athletes can have a rewarding academic experience as a student here.

     Older student-athletes usually have figured out the balancing act between athletics and academics.

     “I think that the biggest impact that athletics has had on my academics has been the pure aspect of how much time I can allocate to my academics,” said Ashley Hwang ’18, a junior swimmer. She is both a honors student and holds three school records, so she definitely has been successful in both parts of her Swarthmore experience.

     “Academics rank significantly higher than athletics for me; however, I have had to learn how to adapt to an unusual schedule that would be unconventional for most students. However, most of my professors have been flexible with my athletic schedule, and have worked with me to create fair deadlines and exam days,” said Ashley.

     “Time-wise, it can suck. There are some weeks where the only social contact I have is with teammates due to the amount of work I have and my practice schedule,” said Ashley about her experience balancing her honors work with her athletic commitments. Ashley seemed to show a more extreme version of what Lelosa told me earlier; Swarthmore student-athletes are busy due to their athletic commitments, but it doesn’t compromise the rigors of their education.

     Visiting Professor of Educational Studies Roseann Liu was asked a few questions about having athletes in her classrooms. She told me it was a little difficult to answer questions about this subject because it is often hard to know for sure who the athletes are in the classroom.

     “The one issue that I could see is that athletic schedules may make it more difficult to create out-of-class learning activities, such as visiting lectures or documentaries. However, I don’t think this is limited to athletes. I think most Swatties have packed schedules,” said Professor Liu. Her statements echoed what students have said, and I think many parents of prospective student-athletes would be happy to hear them.

     A big concern for student-athletes is the time crunch they sometimes face on assignments. However, as Ashley said, “I do not think this affects our major selection, and I do not feel we are handed anything here as student-athletes. We work just as hard for our grades as our non-athlete peers.” Sure, it may be difficult to balance the workload, but these lessons of self-discipline prepare us even more for the real world. Best of all, our athletes get the benefits of participating on a team in competitive action while receiving a world-class education.

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