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It might not be a big surprise that some star student-athletes don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the “student” part of that designation. Still, a recent report about practices at the University of North Carolina shows just complicated things can get. Over the course of 18 years, thousands of the school’s students took fake “paper classes” to stay eligible for football, basketball, and other teams.

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In 2009, researchers Joy Gaston Gayles and Shouping Hu noted in the Journal of Higher Education that the NCAA and other interested parties were pushing for reforms to address this issue. But, at the same time, football players at Division I institutions, were still spending “well over 40 hours per week on athletic related activities,” leaving little time for academics.

Gayles and Hu set out to find what factors might help student-athletes at Division I schools get the most from their years at school. As part of their study, they looked at the students’ involvement in “educationally purposeful activities” like interacting with professors and participating in student groups.

One of their first findings contradicted the stereotype of academically disconnected high school students being recruited for big-name college teams only to become academically disconnected college students. Whether the player was in a high-profile sport had essentially no effect on his or her participation in educational activities. Neither did background variables like race, gender, and academic major. On the other hand, student-athletes interacted less with fellow students outside their teams if they were in high-profile sports, and if they were male. That might reflect the extra-intense role the team plays in these students lives.

When it comes to looking at factors that might improve student learning and communications skills, Gayles and Hu found that interacting with students outside their teams and participating in academic activities helped—but only for athletes in low-profile sports. Students on high-profile teams didn’t gain the same benefits from taking part in non-athletic parts of college life.

The study’s authors write that more research is needed on how to help high-profile athletes gain more from their academic pursuits. But the findings also give a sense of just how difficult it is to help student find meaning in their studies when they’re also essentially working a full-time job on the athletic fields.



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The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 80, No. 3 (May - Jun., 2009), pp. 315-333
Ohio State University Press