SBJ/Aug. 18-24, 2014/Opinion

Programs offer alternative path for athletes to finish degrees

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A student athlete who fails to complete his or her degree prior to exhausting eligibility is out of luck, right? Fail to graduate in five years or suffer an injury that prevents future competition and you’re on your own, right?

Wrong.

Despite congressmen questioning the ability of student athletes to complete their degrees and recent letters penned by the presidents of the Big Ten and Pac-12 that mention degree-completion goals for student athletes, the issue here isn’t about the lack of programs. At best, the issue is a lack of awareness of all of the existing degree-completion programs.

Alvin “Stone” Logan, founder and CEO of the American College Football Players Association, says former student athletes either don’t know about the programs or the application process is too lengthy.

Among the existing programs is the NCAA’s Degree-Completion Award Program. Since being established in 1989, more than $19 million has been awarded to 2,600 former student athletes, with 40 to 45 percent of new applicants accepted each year. The award includes tuition, fees and a book allowance, with room and board awarded on a case-by-case basis. Ninety-two percent of those students receiving awards have completed their degrees through the program.

The National Consortium for Academics and Sports, nearly 30 years old, has assisted more than 33,900 former student athletes in returning to school to complete their degrees at its 280 institutional members. Under the NCAS degree-completion program, tuition and fees are covered in exchange for community service hours from the students, and institutions are encouraged to cooperate if a student athlete wants to attend a different institution than where they attended as a student athlete. To date, more than $300 million in tuition assistance has been awarded by NCAS member institutions.

Individual schools have developed programs as well, including the University of Kentucky in 1989. Bob Bradley, the associate athletic director for student services, has been at Kentucky since the program began and estimates that more than 150 former student athletes have completed their degrees, with more than half of those being former football players. The program is funded by the athletic department, and Bradley says all former student athletes interested in completing their degree are admitted into the program.

I first learned about the existence of degree-completion programs during a football game I attended at the University of Louisville in 2011. During the game, the program was advertised on the video board alerting former student athletes of its existence. Louisville’s program was established in 2000 and receives funds through the athletic department. As of the fall of 2011, 82 students had enrolled in the program, with 50 ultimately completing their degree.

Georgia Tech graduated four of its former football student athletes this past spring, with three others currently working toward their degrees. Gary Guyton, a former Yellow Jacket who signed with the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2008, is completing his degree under the NFL’s Player Tuition Assistance Plan, wherein eligible current and former players are reimbursed for tuition by their current or most recently former team.

Josh Nesbitt, a former starting quarterback for the Yellow Jackets who signed with the Buffalo Bills in 2011 as an undrafted free agent and was waived in 2012, returned to complete his degree under the NCAA’s degree-completion program and will graduate in 2015.

T.J. Barnes, a former defensive tackle with Georgia Tech who initially signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent in 2013, completed his degree this spring through the athletic department’s degree-completion program.

Georgia Tech’s in-house program, which is funded through the athletic department, does not have a cap on the number of participants. Doug Allvine, the assistant athletic director at Georgia Tech who administers the program, says there is a budget for the program each year, but the athletic director has a discretionary fund that can be used if the program runs over budget. Allvine says he’s never been denied a request for funds by current Athletic Director Mike Bobinski or former Athletic Director Dan Radakovich.

In addition to student athletes who failed to complete their degrees while NCAA-eligible, Georgia Tech also funds degree completion for former student athletes who are no longer able to compete due to injury or medical condition. Last school year, the athletic department funded scholarships for student athletes from its swimming, softball and football teams who could no longer compete due to medical conditions. One of those student athletes was injured 2 1/2 years ago and has continued on scholarship while working as a tutor in the athletic department.

Georgia Tech isn’t the only school keeping former student athletes who can no longer compete on scholarship. Oklahoma’s NCAA financial statement last year reported 8.2 grants-in-aid for men’s gymnastics. The NCAA limit for men’s gymnastics is the equivalent of 6.3 grants-in-aid. How could the Sooners award the equivalent of 8.2 scholarships for the sport? The excess represented scholarships for former men’s gymnastics student athletes who had exhausted their eligibility or were medically unable to compete; those scholarships are exempt from the NCAA cap.

While these programs fall short of guaranteeing former student athletes the ability to complete their degrees, they do provide multiple opportunities for degree completion rarely reported on by the media and largely unknown by those outside of intercollegiate athletics.

Everyone involved in intercollegiate athletics plays a role in the success of these programs going forward. Athletic departments and the NCAA need to educate student athletes, university admissions and financial aid offices so former student athletes re-enrolling can be directed to the programs. In addition, organizations representing former student athletes need to educate themselves about the programs and how they can assist their members. While an absolute guarantee from the NCAA or member institutions might be ideal, there’s no reason former student athletes can’t complete their degree under the existing programs if they are still academically eligible and weren’t released for disciplinary reasons.

Kristi Dosh is vice president of public relations for Reputation Ink.

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