MEASURING THE IMPACT
OF COLLEGE ATHLETICS
A WORK IN PROGRESS
MICHAEL ZIMMERMAN, vice president for academic affairs and provost at Evergreen State College, is a biologist
specializing in plant-animal interactions, science literacy, and the evolution/creationism controversy. He founded and runs The
Clergy Letter Project to promote the teaching of evolution and the compatibility of religion and science. He is represented by
the Ovation Agency speakers bureau. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are a number of things that
everyone “knows” about college athletics:
1 NCAA Division I programs are big businesses, although the
athletes themselves are excluded
from being paid for their efforts;
Cheating is rampant, both in
terms of recruiting violations
and academic infractions that
help athletes earn passing grades they
don’t deserve; and
draw some of the largest
television audiences of all U.S.
What’s far less clear, however, is
whether participating in college
athletics is beneficial for the athletes
themselves — beyond those rare few
who go on to earn a living playing
professionally. You’d think that
determining an answer to this rather
simple question wouldn’t be that
difficult, but that doesn’t appear to be
For example, it’s certainly easy to
ask whether college athletes graduate
at a higher or lower rate than students
who don’t participate in intercollegiate
sports. The results, however, aren’t all
The NCAA’s statistics for six-year
graduation rates for Division I students
entering college in 2006 indicate that
athletes graduate at a significantly higher rate than their fellow students: 82 percent
versus 64 percent. But those statistics may well be misleading.
The value for the non-athletes comes from the federal government, which officially
tracks six-year graduation rates, but it does so only by recognizing successful
graduation events if the students graduate from the institution at which they began.
Students successfully transferring to other schools and graduating from those schools
The NCAA figures, on the other hand, track individual students, regardless of
which institution grants their undergraduate degree. Disaggregate the NCAA data
and the big difference evaporates: 65 percent of Division I athletes graduate within
six years from their original school compared to 64 percent of their fellow students.
Are athletes more likely to graduate after transferring? No one knows.
In an attempt to look beyond graduation rates, researchers at Indiana State
University examined characteristics they believe are linked to post-college success:
“critical thinking, self-awareness, communication, diversity, citizenship, relationships
The authors concluded that “While student-athletes enter college at a lower
academic level than non-athletes, they progress at almost double the speed and
contribute more in those intangible areas. We’re rather convinced that student-
athletes are far more ready to face the world than non-athletes.” They also argued that
the results were as much about the structured environment in which athletes function
than it was about the athletes themselves.
Nonetheless, the results are encouraging.
And those results are consistent with some found by researchers in England who
noted that graduates who had been engaged in sports were likely to earn higher
salaries than those who had not. Additionally, employers indicated that they were
impressed with many characteristics associated with membership on a team.
It appears this is a field ready for more detailed study!
For works cited: go to www.phikappaphi.org/forum/summer2016