Friday, December 18, 2009

Division III Academic Performance a Problem?

It's been a while since my last post, as I've been coming down to some final exams/projects and starting some really exciting analysis on some attendance and competitive balance stuff here at work. With the holidays coming up, I wanted to be sure to get at least one more post out (maybe two) with a little more substance than "check out Fantasy Ball Junkie". I hope to have a post about differences between academic and internet publishing and how both can be valuable in the near future (as I had told many people). I'm giving my best possible diplomatic attempt at that discussion, which is why I'm taking a while to post.

Recently, Phil Miller discussed Division III athletics and academics over at The Sports Economist. The article they link is here. This is a topic that hits close to home with me, since I played baseball at a small Division III college. There is a very interesting discussion over there that includes comments from Dennis Coates and AG Dube (who is apparently a graduate student at Houston). As a former student athlete who holds the 'student' portion close to heart, there are some inferences made that I take some exception to. That is more of a personal matter, and there are a number of different ways to look at this problem. Today I feel like rambling on, so don't expect an extraordinarily organized post below.

As an undergraduate, I often heard the social stigma or stereotype about athletes not being great students. This is probably very true at the Division I and II levels. The article mentioned tries to make a case for the same problems at the Division III level. While I'm sure it's true to an extent, I'm not convinced it's actually a problem anyone needs to be severely worried about.

As my honor's thesis, I looked at academic performance of athletes and non-athletes at my small school and didn't find much difference in performance. That was without controlling for much (as an undergrad, I didn't have the ability or resources at a small school to do anything too sophisticated). One of the interesting aspects I did find, though, was that student athletes self-reported better time management skills to an extremely significant extent. In much of the literature I read (which includes the Terenzini that AG Dube mentions in his TSE comments) it seems that better students tend to be attracted to athletics in high school. So, I think there's some other things to consider when talking about a college experience.

Beginning with Division I, we know that numerous exceptions are made for students with elite athletic skill. The reason we probably shouldn't worry too much about this is that they don't make up a significant portion of the student population at many large Division I schools. Secondly, they bring in significant revenue for the school and attract students to apply there (see the "Flutie Factor"). Given the smaller number of 'exceptions' made, proportionally to the Division I school student population, I don't think there should be huge worry about destroying the school's academic reputation. Obviously there's a point at which there can be problems (getting in trouble with the law, independent study scandals, etc.). Jim Harbaugh recently took a swipe at Michigan about the exceptions they make for student athletes here...it happens.

As for Division II, I don't know much about these schools. From my observations, they're much lower on the academic totem pole than their Division III and Division I counterparts. That's okay, too, as having institutions for students who can't get into Stanford is still a very good thing for society, in my opinion. All I do know about these schools is that they are allowed to give out scholarships. I can't imagine the revenue they see from their sports is really significantly higher than Division III, but I'm sure it's a bit more of an issue in their athletic departments. I don't really know.

The Division III athletics mantra is that academics come first. I think most of the concern is over only 2 sports: Football and Basketball. I actually think this is the concern for Division I and II as well. As someone who played on the baseball team, I can say we had a lot of very smart guys. Yes, there were a few bad eggs, but they're also around in the general student population. I know it's a bit anecdotal, but my team consisted of the following career paths from only a few of the 7 classes I played with:

Medical Student at IUPUI (PhD/MD finalist)
Columbia Law (175 LSAT is the rumor on him)
Full Scholarship to Richmond Law
Job Appointment at NSA
PhD/MA Student at Michigan
WBC Coordinator and MLB Tomorrow Fund Grant Administrator
Minor League Umpire (currently Double A)
Multiple T. Rowe Price employees
Manager of Autopsy Lab
Booz Allen Hamilton Consultant

Many of the guys on my team had significantly higher GPA's than I did. Most of them had no trouble getting jobs right out of college and most work with the government and are currently working on their MBAs. None of them are in PhD programs. Which begs the question: does marginal improvement in GPA really matter?

I'm willing to bet that on every application, my friends put that they played baseball in college. From my experience, interviewers definitely take this into account. Every interviewer has some paradigm about how they think playing athletics affects academic performance, and I'm sure they apply that to their evaluations. Isn't the idea of going to college to have the social experience and have better job prospects? Does anyone go to college to get the highest GPA so they can brag about that forever? I doubt it. And to gauge the value of your college education by GPA alone is ridiculous. Besides maximizing utility during college (as Dennis Coates suggests, and I agree with), what else could college athletics be doing for its athletes? Below is a non-exhaustive list of reasons I've heard people say they play college athletics. Some are hilariously silly (but true), while others make a lot of sense.

1. Social Networking--I know from experience that I never have, and never will, have a group of friends closer than those I made in college through playing baseball. I had friends not on the team, but with the exception of one, I never see them. The comraderie is invaluable and can actually lead to future jobs.

2. Athletes (especially at DIII) are generally from higher-earning families--I don't know how true this is, but from my experience this is the case. It relates back to social networking and the 'who you know not what you know' mantra about finding a career.

3. From the Male POV, athletes seem to attract "better" and "prettier" women--YES, it's silly! I know. But let's think about it for a second. This may not be a valuable asset to a lot of people, but it definitely is to some (whether or not they admit it). I doubt Tiger Woods would have married a Swedish supermodel if he wasn't Tiger Woods (and if he did, probably wouldn't have cheated on her as much). Similarly, though to a lesser extent, it's natural for women to be attracted to men who appear athletic. That's good for reproduction and is an evolutionary consideration. What about being able to attract girls from higher-earning families? While not politically correct, I think it would be a valuable addition to examining the outcomes of playing college athletics. If guys that play sports are often from this population, I think it's likely that the girls who watch them are of a similar breed.

4. Playing athletics could help with time management skills--This is in fact what I seemed to find in my undergrad thesis (though, it was self-reported and my undergrad work should be taken with a grain/chunk of salt). In addition, those that took the survey in-season reported even higher time management skill perceptions. I can't remember the theory exactly--it has to do with temporal myopia...something like that...my undergrad advisor was working on this stuff--but researchers have found that when you have much more to do, you're much more efficient in getting it done. When procrastination isn't an option, it doesn't happen. This is the case with sports, as I often got my assignments done well in advance of the deadline. With game rescheduling uncertainties, it was silly to wait to the last second to do an assignment.

5. People like athletes--Well, some people. Some athletes are assholes. However, I think that you would often find an interviewer at a job very impressed with the fact that you played a sport in college. So impressed, in fact, that it may overshadow the fact that your 3.4 GPA wasn't as good as the other guy's/gal's 3.65 GPA. I'm not sure people have measured the extent of this effect. I've met plenty of people that think it's really cool that I played baseball in college. Others couldn't care less. Considering we weren't very good, I side closer with the latter, but I'm proud of having been a student-athlete.

6. Developing social skills--Some college students that focus too much on their academics (I'm using 'too much' loosely) don't actually gain the social skills needed when working on a job or going to an interview. While athletics aren't the cause of increased social skill, they definitely provide a platform for improving interaction with others.

7. For students at the margin of staying in college, participation in athletics seems ambiguous to me. Some may find it too daunting to do both athletics and academics and may drop out of athletics to focus on school (in fact, I found this to be true for those not ready to take on that challenge in my udergraduate thesis). Other students who may have otherwise dropped out of college may be staying there in order to continue playing sports. Whether or not that is good for that student is also ambiguous.

8. Athletics can complement academic discipline. This is similar to other extracirriculars. Athletics are just another club to be a part of. Many schools tout the importance of extracirriculars, and athletics is no different. In addition, athletics can serve as a 'break' from the rigor of college academics.

9. Academics can work as an outlet for students. This is similar to #8. Students involved in athletics are probably less likely to get involved in other activities that may be detrimental to their schooling or lives in general. I think this is more important at the high school level, but I don't see why it shouldn't be applied to college as well. If I wasn't playing baseball, I would likely have been filling up my time with other activities. I'm sure one of those would have been a lot more partying and other stupid, useless crap. To assume that non-athletes spend all of those hours studying rather than playing sports is just wrong. (Also, to assume I didn't "have fun" in college is also wrong.........)

10. Athletics provide a place for improvement of health and physical fitness--As pointed out at TSE, colleges tout the idea that they improve mind and body. Intelligence researchers have often pointed to multiple facets of intelligence, one of which being kinesthetic movement. With the obesity problems we have in this country today, I don't think chastising athletics as an insititution is good practice for those truly interested in improving life for its students.

So what could be going wrong? While I haven't read much of the literature, I imagine there could be the following problems:

1. Not controlling for 'innate' ability (some do and some don't)
2. The fact that athletes could be less likely to drop out thanks to athletics
3. The idea that better students tend to flock toward athletics and can therefore afford a marginal drop in GPA.
4. My personal experience shows outliers being a culprit in lower athlete GPAs. I think there is definitely an 'at risk' population of athletes.
5. Football and basketball could be exceptions to a rule otherwise followed in Division III athletics. I think AG Dube mentions this in his comment section, saying sports other than these often score much higher in academic performance scales.

So what's the problem with Football and Basketball? These two sports are ones that seem to pull more from inner city, minority, or lower-income populations than the others. I argue that this is GOOD! Those students may not otherwise have the access to a college education. Since only 2 teams are not a significant portion of the population at most schools, I don't foresee this being a risk to academic integrity even at a Division III school--if it's a perceived problem, I think they are willing to change things quickly. In fact, our basketball coach had brought in certain players that had been kicked off teams at Division I schools. That coach was swiftly fired after an incident with one of those players.

The revenue from D-III athletics is close to nothing, so what's the point in hanging onto a coach if he's hurting your reputation? I think the externalities (of a Flutie Factor-type) are pretty insignificant at the Division III level as well. If non-athlete students cared about sports that much, they probably would have gone to a large school.

There are pressures from coaches because they're incented to win...just like Division I coaches. They're paid for that. However, I don't think this is a serious problem at most institutions. The ones mentioned in the article, including Chicago, don't seem likely to allow significant pressure against academic rigor. I can say that our coach did not like players to be science majors: too many labs conflicting with classes. Baseball was the reason I didn't major in Biochemistry. But it wasn't the coach's pressure, it was my own desire to continue playing athletics. I saw the value of athletics being much higher than Monday afternoon lab, so I went with baseball. I'm glad I did, because I'm not sure I would have stayed in college had I chosen not to play sports. I have baseball to thank for making my college education a happy time. NCAA and its member institutions would be well-served looking at well-being, as well as academic performance, if it wants to know its true effect on students.

Update: I wanted to link AG Dube's blog here. It's a very well-written site and very informed on many issues. I'd recommend it, though I disagree with some of the content implications. But that's the fun of discussion! Definitely worth checking out. His most recent post on required Bowl ticket sales is very interesting, and something I did not know about. Without knowing more details, I can't take too strong of an opinion on the issue, but it sounds like Western Michigan go screwed.

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