Making the Grade: Academic Success in Today’s Athlete


The overall importance placed on an athlete’s academic eligibility can be extremely stressful for both the coach and the student-athlete. In order to compete the athlete must remain academically eligible; thus, various academic support programs have been implemented by athletic departments as a means of maintaining eligibility and ensuring academic progress. Although these programs are vital to assisting student-athletes in accomplishing the goal of academic success, the question remains ‘Are they successful?’ This study found that academic support programs were successful as they related to female student-athlete’s overall GPA. Yet, male student-athletes were not as successful. In fact, a significant difference was found between intercollegiate sports teams and overall GPA; interestingly, all of the female sports teams had significantly higher GPAs than did their male counterparts. It appears that academic support programs are not a ‘one size fits all;’ male student-athletes may need a different type of program in order to achieve academic success. A standard format for study hall may not be an appropriate method for helping today’s athlete to ‘make the grade’.


Academic success, academic support programs, athletics, student-athletes


Athletics has a history of importance in American society. Across the country, newspapers have devoted entire sections and televisions have created entire channels dedicated to covering the latest updates on sports. Attention has not always been solely about games and competitions; the spotlight has recently been redirected to academics. This is quite a change since 1983, when only 25 (out of more than 16,000) high school districts had even minimal academic standards as a condition of high school sports (Edwards, 1984). Today, athletes wanting to participate in intercollegiate athletics must meet specific academic criteria before being added to a sport’s roster.

Over the last few years, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has intervened and created firm standards for academic performance among member institutions. Programs with incentive and disincentives have been created to reward sport teams that do well academically, while penalizing those that do not. Their goal is to encourage improvement of academic performance of all student-athletes on all sports teams (Meyer, 2005).

The NCAA requires member institutions to distribute graduation rates to prospective student-athletes and/or their parent(s) or guardian(s) to ensure athletes and their families are made aware of the academic reputation of the institutions they are considering. Recruits considering various universities should answer two important questions: which institution will provide the best athletic experience, and second, which will provide the best academic experience (Lucas & Lovaglia, 2005). In a 2006 report aimed to assist high school students in choosing a college, reporter Carolyn Thornton interviewed David DeBloise of the College Planning Center in Rhode Island. In Thornton’s interview, DeBloise stated that the key to choosing the right college is to find one that offers a balance of both academics and athletics. DeBloise offered a long list of questions for students preparing themselves for college. Among them: What is the school’s academic reputation, and does the school offer support services, such as a writing center, academic advising center, and computer facilities? In the conclusion of the interview, “DeBlois’ parting advice to anyone working through this process: maintain the perspective that you are a ‘student-athlete,’ not an ‘athlete-student’” (Thornton, 2006, p.13).

With academic importance and expectations increasing, universities across the country have launched a variety of academic services for their athletes. According to Foltz (1992):

Data have shown the individual student-athlete has suffered from an educational system that has not prepared him or her well for institutions of higher learning. Their training through the educational system has left a number of student-athletes with inadequate skills necessary for academic success in college. (p. 4)

In an attempt to remedy problems associated with participating in intercollegiate athletics, many institutions offer services to assist and monitor their student-athlete’s academic progress. Shining light on the area of academics may not only increase the number of athletic departments offering specialized academic support services and monitoring strategies, but may also increase the academic success of student-athletes.

Pressure placed on athletes to win may have a detrimental effect on the student’s commitment to be successful in the classroom (Lance, 2004). Although it does not justify poor or absent course work, it does illustrate the importance behind increased monitoring strategies. Role conflict may hinder a student-athlete’s ability to reconcile this dual status as both student and athlete (Sack & Thiel, 1985). While academic support services may help member institutions solve the academic problems many colleges and universities face (Hobneck, Mudge, & Turchi, 2003), the intent is to exchange the athletic performance for a quality education (Edwards, 1984).

There is a need for interference of athletic participation and academic performance (Akker, 1995). Faculty, coaches, and athletic administrators must be knowledgeable and responsive regarding the student-athlete’s academic performance. According to Peak (1995), “the student-athlete must remain academically eligible in order to participate in intercollegiate athletics” (p. 2); thus, study halls are often developed to assist struggling student-athletes.

The ability to identify possible contributing factors of academic success might be valuable in providing a basis for academic support or required study halls. Knowing a generalized history of the most rigorous academic year for students may be useful in deciding a target population to assist. In addition, athletes in some sports may rarely struggle, while some may be notorious for their academic shortcomings. Identifying whether or not there is a difference in the academic performance of female athletes and male athletes, or between freshmen/sophomores and juniors/seniors could be beneficial in creating the most advantageous academic services. Recognizing areas of potential struggle might be valuable in helping facilitate academic services for student-athletes.

During February 2005, the NCAA released its first Academic Progress Rate (APR) for Division I football and basketball programs (NCAA, 2005). The desired outcome behind the APR was to motivate athletic programs to become more involved with the academic success of their athletes, thus peaking the student’s interest in attending institutions with a higher APR. APRs are based on the eligibility and retention of student-athletes. Recruits and their parent(s) or guardian(s) find it important to know which institutions are likely to not only keep students academically eligible, but also retain the student-athletes through graduation (Lucas & Lovaglia, 2005). Distributing APRs may help prospective student-athletes become more interested in pursuing not only a successful athletic career, but also a successful academic career. The NCAA (2005) believed that, over time, the best athletes would then begin attending the successful academic schools, ultimately increasing athletic and academic success. Once the desired transition takes place, it is assumed the negative perceived relationships between athletics and academics will become positive.

Using cumulative college grade point averages (GPA) as a measure of academic performance (Foltz, 1992), studies have indicated that athletic participation has had a positive impact on academic achievement, despite the additional responsibility athletic participation requires (Sack & Thiel, 1985; Lance, 2004; Hobneck, Mudge, & Turchi, 2003). Research by Foltz (1992) found that athletes performed at a higher academic level in-season than out-of-season. Gender has become a major influence on the predictor of academic performance possibly due to the reported role conflict being greater among males versus female (Sack & Thiel, 1985). Foltz (1992) reported female athletes’ college GPAs were found to be higher than their male student-athlete counterparts. Although gender may be a predictor of possible academic stress, student-athlete classification was not. Average GPAs of freshmen were identical to the GPAs of seniors-while sophomore and junior GPAs were identical. However, Foltz (1992) found no link between type of sport participation and GPA.

A great deal of importance has been placed on academic services and there has been a strong demand for quality student-athlete support services in terms of tutorial services, academic advising, and teaching study skills (Pope & Miller, 1999). Over the last several years, the NCAA has taken many actions to strengthen its academic requirements and to provide better outcome measures. Nationwide, universities are grasping the idea behind this action and more support services and more ways to monitor academic progress are being provided to help athletes succeed. In order to assist student-athletes in accomplishing the goals of academic success and graduation, it is essential to identify areas for improvement.

Statement of the Problem

The purpose of the study was to investigate academic success, via grade point average among baseball, men/women basketball, men/women cross-country, football, men/women golf, softball, women’s tennis, men/women track and field, volleyball, and wrestling at a small NCAA Division II institution. Academic success was defined as earning a GPA of 3.0 or above. The following research questions were posed:

  1. Would there be a significant difference in grade point averages among the intercollegiate sports teams?
  2. Would there be a significant difference in grade point averages between the male and female student-athletes?


The participants for this study consisted of 379 male and female collegiate student-athletes who participated in any of the following sports during the 2006-2007 academic year at the institution being researched. Of the 379 participants, there were 266 males and 113 females who comprised the 14 sports teams (see Table 1).

Table 1
Subjects – By Gender and By Sport

Sport Male Female
Baseball 40 n/a
Basketball 16 16
Cross-Country 12 06
Football 90 n/a
Golf 06 06
Softball n/a 17
Tennis n/a 12
Track ∓ Field 60 40
Volleyball n/a 16
Wrestling 42 n/a
Total 266 113

The eligibility rosters were obtained through the University’s compliance coordinator and contained all student-athletes eligible or ineligible to compete during the 2006-2007 season. Only student-athletes who were on a team for the consecutive fall 2006 and spring 2007 semester were used for the study; all other participants were excluded. The participation statistics for each sport were obtained through the head coach and the compliance coordinator at the institution. As an additional criterion, only student-athletes who participated in a contest or match were used for the study; all other participants were excluded. Thus, reducing the total population for the study to 251 student-athletes (N=251).

A 4.0 scale was used as the measurement value of grade point average. The points per credit hour earned were assigned as follows: each credit of A = 4 points; each credit of B = 3 points; each credit of C = 2 points; each credit of D = 1 point; each credit of F = 0 points. Cumulative GPA was calculated by dividing the total points earned by the number of credit hours attempted.

The registrar’s office provided information related to each student-athletes’ academic status and GPA. The data was then analyzed to determine if there was a difference in academic success among intercollegiate sports teams and gender using GPA. Statistical Package for the Social Sciences 16.0 was used to calculate the statistics. For the purpose of this study, the alpha level was set at .05.


Utilizing an ANOVA to analyze the data, the results of this study yielded that there was a significant difference in grade point averages between intercollegiate sports teams. Since the significance of the 2-tailed test was less than the alpha level at .05, there was a significant difference between grade point averages and sports (see Table 2).

Table 2
Grade Point Averages between Intercollegiate Sports Teams

Grade Point Averages Intercollegiate Sports Teams
Mean 2.9650 8.48
N 251 251
Standard Deviation .56963 4.179
Significance .000

In order to determine which sports teams had significantly different grade point averages, the researcher conducted a Between-Subjects Effects test (see Table 3). The results showed that there was a significant difference in grade point average among all of the female sports (basketball, cross-country, golf, tennis, track, softball, and volleyball) as compared to the other intercollegiate sports teams (see Table 4).

Table 3
Tests of Between-Subjects Effects

Source Type III
Sum of Squares
df Mean Square F Sig.
Corrected Model 14.536 1 14.536 54.358 .000
Intercept 2069.314 1 2069.314 7738.47 .000
Gender 14.536 1 14.536 54.358 .000
Error 66.584 249 0.267
Total 2287.688 251
Corrected Total 81.120 250

Table 4
Means per Intercollegiate Sports Teams

Sport Mean Standard Deviation N
Baseball (M) 2.9276 0.43374 33
Basketball (F) 3.2773 0.47559 11
Basketball (M) 2.555 0.6663 12
Cross-Country (F) 3.4362 0.52196 13
Cross-Country (M) 2.7436 0.65531 11
Football(M) 2.7454 0.5336 50
Golf (F) 3.246 0.46231 5
Golf (M) 2.8986 0.4482 7
Softball (F) 3.1831 0.49035 13
Tennis (F) 3.33 0.56353 7
Track (F) 3.2465 0.45389 26
Track (M) 2.8295 0.63888 38
Volleyball (F) 3.5575 0.2307 8
Wrestling (M) 2.7747 0.33834 17
Total 2.965 0.56963 251

Lastly, the researcher concluded that the female student-athletes had a significantly higher grade point average than the male student-athletes (see Table 5).

Table 5
Gender (Dependent Variable: GPA)

95% Confidence Interval
Gender Mean Standard Error Lower Bound Upper Bound
Male 2.796 0.04 2.717 2.874
Female 3.307 0.057 3.196 3.419


Based upon the results of this study, the following conclusions were drawn:

  1. A significant difference was found between grade point averages and the various intercollegiate sports teams.
  2. A significant difference was found between male and female student-athletes as it related to their grade point averages.


It is apparent that this research study affirms the trend of female student-athletes performing at significantly higher academic levels than their male counterparts. Yet, academic support programs, for both male and female student-athletes, have been a mainstay within most athletic departments since the mid-1980s. As professionals, we must ask ourselves why many male student-athletes continue to earn lower GPAs than their female peers. We must also ask ourselves how we may be able to close this academic gap. What programs can be implemented to ensure the overall success of both genders, yet concentrate on those athletes, mostly males, who may struggle academically? Perhaps it is not just a matter of academic support services and study halls; rather the trend is directly related to role conflicts and adjustments to collegiate life. Serious thought should be given to the long-term academic success of the student-athlete. The NCAA has been proactive in establishing programs to try to help ensure student-athlete success. These programs are vital in assisting student-athletes accomplish their goals of academic and athletic success. However, the formula for success is a dynamic and holistic concept and may require uniquely different approaches as it relates to each intercollegiate sports team as well as gender. The old adage “one size fits all” may not be an appropriate method for helping today’s athlete to make the grade.


Akker, K.V. (1995). Athletic participation and the academic achievement of athletes. Unpublished master’s thesis, Ball State University, IN.

Edwards, H. (1984). The collegiate athletic arms race: Origins and implications of the ‘Rule 48’ controversy. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 8, 4-22.

Foltz, R.A. (1992). Academic achievement of student-athletes. Unpublished master’s thesis, Fort Hays State University, KS.

Hobneck, C., Mudge, L., & Turchi, M. (2003). Improving student athlete academic success and retention. Saint Xavier University, Chicago, IL.

Lance, L.M. (2004). Gender differences in perceived role conflict among university student-athletes. College Student Journal, 38(2), 179-190.

Lucas, J.W., & Lovaglia, M.J. (2005). Can academic progress help collegiate football teams win? The Sport Journal, 8(3). Retrieved from

Meyer, S.K. (2005). NCAA academic reforms: Maintaining the balance between academics and athletics. Phi Kappa Phi Forum, 85(3), 15-18.

National Collegiate Athletic Association. (2005, February). Academic progress rate data report information. Retrieved from

Peak, K.W. (1995). An investigation of the academic progress of selected intercollegiate athletes involved in two types of academic support programs. Unpublished master’s thesis, East Texas State University, TX.

Pope, M.L., & Miller, M.T. (1999). Support services for student-athletes: Athletic department and student affairs officers perceptions. (ERIC Document, Reproductions Service No. ED437886).

Sack, A.L., & Thiel, R. (1985). College basketball and role conflict: A national survey. Sociology of Sport Journal, 2, 195-209.

Thornton, C. (2006, July 17). College-bound athletes need to assess ability. The Providence Journal. Retrieved May 4, 2009, from

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