Making the Grade, Missing the Goal

Even though more than 70,000 students participate in intercollegiate athletics every year at community colleges around the country, very little is known about how these students perform in the classroom. Research on college athletics typically focuses on four-year institutions.

A new study of community college athletes, however, reveals that they earn better grades and earn more credits than their non-athlete counterparts, but are significantly less likely to graduate. To some, these results suggest that two-year athletic programs need a dose of academic reform, with the sorts of restrictions and penalties now commonplace in the four-year world of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

This rare research on community college athletics is the work of David Horton Jr., newly minted Ph.D. from the University of Florida and now an assistant professor of counseling and higher education at Ohio University. Horton, himself a community college baseball player at Wharton County Junior College and Panola College in Texas, was inspired to write his doctoral dissertation on the academic performance of these athletes partially in response to the lack of scholarship on the topic.

The study examined the degree attainment — associate degree or professional certificate — and transfer rates to four-year institutions of community college athletes in Florida who received athletic scholarship money. Its findings examine the academic outcomes of 568 athletes, representing 20 of the 25 sport-sponsoring institutions in the state, during the 2004-5 academic year. For context, these athletes were compared to a sample group of full-time students enrolled in the same institutions as the athletes.

Among the key findings of the study, community college athletes earned a mean grade point average of 2.59, and their non-athlete counterparts earned a 2.29. Looking at subgroups by race, gender and socioeconomic status, this gap between athletes and non-athletes remained consistent. Community college athletes also earned about four more credit hours per semester than non-athletes did — 10 to 6. This gap also remained consistent among subgroups.

Horton, however, cautioned that this difference in performance must be viewed with some skepticism. The data set he used did not allow for him to differentiate among courses of varying levels of rigor. He also pointed to prior research that indicates community college athletes tend to cluster in “easier” courses of study to improve their grades, a phenomenon that has been noted among athletes at many four-year institutions.

Despite their better-than-average grades and credit attainment, athletes were less likely than non-athletes to earn an associate degree or professional certificate from a community college when holding all other variables constant. Still, athletes were found just as likely as non-athletes either to complete a transfer to a four-year institution prior to earning a community college degree or to earn one and then transfer to a four-year institution.

Horton called the disparity in degree completion between athletes and non-athletes “disconcerting,” especially considering that many institutions tout their athletic programs as “portals” to higher education for many underrepresented students. Reconciling these athletes’ low graduation rates with their high grades and credit completion, he said, might be done with reference to community college eligibility rules.

The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), an organization overseeing sports at more than 500 community colleges, requires that athletes at its member colleges stay enrolled in 12 or more credit hours during each semester of participation. For the second semester, an athlete must complete at least 12 credits with a 1.75 grade point average to stay enrolled. This benchmark shifts to 2.0 for the third and fourth semesters of eligibility.

Unlike the NCAA, the NJCAA has no specific benchmarks for fulfilling the “progress toward degree” requirement from term to term. The NJCAA’s eligibility rules state only that an athlete “must be making satisfactory progress within an approved college program or courses as listed in the college catalog.”

Horton argued that this bylaw is too vague, saying that there should be some benchmarks for students to meet.

“Student-athletes are more inclined to earn higher GPAs than non-athlete students, due to their desire to stay academically eligible,” Horton writes. “However, the NJCAA does not recommend or enforce graduation standards for institutions which sponsor athletic programs. Student-athletes and coaches are more inclined to focus on meeting semester enrollment and GPA requirements than completing academic programs of study which lead to completion of a degree prior to a student leaving their institution.”

Horton also argued that the NJCAA should institute stricter initial eligibility standards if it hopes to see greater academic success among its athletes. Currently, athletes only need a high school diploma or have passed at least 12 community college credits with a 1.75 GPA to play. Horton acknowledged, however, that any major change to this requirement might fly in the face of the “open access” mission of community colleges.

NJCAA officials had a reserved response to Horton’s study, cautioning that one should not infer that a study of athletes in one of their 24 regions is representative of community college athletes nationwide.

Mark King, a spokesman for the association, said the organization does not collect data to gauge the performance of its athletes compared to non-athletes. Its small size, he said, precludes it from such data collection and — even if it had a desire to so — levying punishments against underperforming institutions.

“That would go against the mission that our college presidents have set and hasn’t been the approach that the 500-plus institutions in our association have pushed for,” King said of a move to adopt stricter eligibility requirements. “If the community college system is going to be based on open enrollments, then how are we going to say that a person is going to be restricted from play as soon as they get there?”

So far, King said there were no legislative movements among the association’s members to make any eligibility changes or adopt NCAA-like punishments.

“I’m not going to say that the situation is perfect,” King said of community college athletes’ graduation rates. “But, our schools are taking the students that don’t qualify for four-year institutions and, therefore, there are challenges that they face in educating these kids. It’s doing the hard work, and I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on that part.”

Regardless of whether the NJCAA changes its eligibility standards, Horton said community colleges and their states need to put more preventative measures into place to ensure the academic success of their athletes. Some NCAA institutions, he noted, are shying away from recruiting community college athletes, citing their belief that these students might not be able to succeed in a more academically restricted league. He hopes his future research can help matters and improve the performance of these athletes.

“We need to pay more attention to student-athletes at community colleges,” Horton said. “My agenda at this point is to try my hardest to find a mechanism to monitor their academic behavior to see what’s going on.”


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