The Liberal Arts College Structure Offers More For Student-Athletes Who Experience Lower Levels Of Academic Achievement

Jordan Fabien



One of the most popular topics concerning academe is the role of student-athletes on college campuses. The correlation between student-athletes and low levels of academics has become more of a concern for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) as academic fraud in all levels of colleges has risen. One example is the twenty academic misconduct investigations that are currently being pursued at UNC-Chapel Hill. The president of the NCAA has commented as to how this “strikes at the heart of what higher education is about” (Kane 2015). It is to no surprise that UNC; a Division 1A school birthing potential professional athletes in high revenue sports is receiving the most media coverage and academic literature. Despite division 3 schools accounting for 37% of all college athletes, division 1 school have held most of the media attention and studies regarding student-athletes and low levels of academic achievement (Robst & Keil 2000). In comparison to division 1 colleges, most division 3 liberal arts schools are known for its academic prestige and liberal arts education. 83% of division 3 schools are private institutions and require higher admission standards and have different requirements and curriculums in comparison to the 34% of private division 1 colleges (Scottsdale Soccer 2014).

Division 3 liberal arts schools have a vastly different structure for their student-athletes than do division 1 schools and yet there is still a phenomenon of which student-athletes have lower levels of academics in comparison to non-student athletes.

Low levels of academic achievement occur when student-athletes experience an imbalance of focus towards their athletic and academic worlds. This imbalance is a result of student-athletes having more motivation towards their sport than their academics. Student-athletes naturally have more motivation to be success in their sport because it gives them a higher level of self-worth.


Literature Review:

(Maloney & McCormick 1993) offers evidence that supports that students who don’t play collegiate sports do better academically than students that do play sports. The average G.P.A of student-athletes and non-student-athletes at Clemson University; the average G.P.A for 13,026 student-athletes was 2.37 while the average G.P.A for 266.276 non-student-athletes was 2.68. Clemson University is only one example of many that student-athletes at division 1 schools have lower G.P.A’s than students that do not play sports.

(Robst & Keil 2000) Conducted a similar study on student-athletes at Binghamton University when it was a division 3 school whose results also serves an example of the same correlation of student-athletes and lower levels of academics achievement; the average G.P.A for non-student athletes at Binghamton was 3.12 while the average G.P.A for student-athletes was 3.04 (Robst & Keil 2000). When this study was conducted Binghamton was held at a high academic standing as their average SAT scores was well above the national average (Robst & Keil 2000).

Using data from an in-season football schedule, football players at division 3 schools spend on average 25-30 hours per week practicing, lifting, playing games and attending meetings. Division 1 Football players spend an average of 43.3 hours per week dedicated to the same (Jacobs 2015). Despite student-athletes at division 3 schools having more time to spend on their academics they still exhibit lower levels of academic achievement than non-student athletes. Student-athletes do have less time in general than student that don’t play sports, however, a liberal arts structure gives student-athletes time and resources to excel at both athletics and academics. Still most student athletes focus more on their sport than on their academic duties (Simons, Rheenen & Covington 1999).

As student-athletes enter the college environment, their top priority isn’t to excel in the classroom; it is to create an identity through their sport (Miller & Kerr 2003). Student-athletes spend the majority of the start of their college careers building up their foundations athletes before focusing on academics (Miller & Kerr 2003). Self-acceptance for student-athletes trumps their other priorities and it is in their ability to be successful athletically where these students achieve self-acceptance (Simons, Rheenen & Covington 1999).

There is such a singular focus on the athletic sphere during their first semester that academics isn’t the only cost towards building an athletic role on a campus, but a social cost as well, as student-athletes give up meaningful social exploration for athletic gains (Miller & Kerr 2003). There are unrealized intrinsic influences that go into being a student-athlete that causes ze to focus more time and energy towards his or her sport over their academics. These intrinsic influences that lead to them to focus more on the athletic sphere are what (Simons, Rheenen & Covington 1999) we introduce as the “self-worth theory”.

The “self-worth theory” is central to the low levels of academic achievement when comparing G.P.A’s of student-athletes and non-student-athletes. This theory is a result of the motivation to achieve through the need to approach success while avoiding failure ” (Simons, Rheenen and Covington 1999).

The self worth theory is vital to student-athletes who are balancing important roles and it to focus more on what gives them the most self-acceptance, which is usually hitting a three-pointer or scoring a touchdown in front of thousands of spectators instead participating on academic assignments.

A student-athlete’s role at a liberal arts school is to excel at both athletics and academics. When a student-athletes receives more self-worth by participating in their sport than they do conducting academic assignments they begin to experience what is called “motivation controversy”, a phenomenon in which student athletes are extremely motivated to participate fully in their athletic lives, but cannot translate the motivation from the field or on the court into the classroom (Simons, Rheenen, and Covington 1999).

The Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts defines a liberal arts education to be a combination of specific practices and conditions: (a) the development of a set of intellectual arts (e.g., intellectual openness to inquire and discover; and the ability and desire to adopt a critical perspective of one’s and other’s beliefs) more than professional or vocational skills; (b) curricular and environmental structures that work in combination to create a coherent integrity to students’ intellectual experience; and (c) an institutional tradition of student– student and student–faculty interaction both in and out of the classroom (Blaich et al 2004; Seifert et al 2007).

The structure of liberal arts schools differs greatly from that of big national universities that concentrate heavily on professional and vocational skills. Liberal arts schools are significantly smaller than national universities and have a smaller teacher-student ratio, allowing students to have personal relationships with professors raising expectations and accountability.

The existence of the negative stigma towards student athletes creates an environment in which self-worth and motivation is diminished causes them to become “intellectually inferior” (Herbert et al 1999). The admissions process and the different requirement set for student athletes put a negative light on student-athletes by the regular student that feel like they don’t deserve admission. Student-athletes are given more leeway with their GPA and SAT scores than non-athletes creating unfairness and special treatment towards student-athletes. NCAA Bylaw states, “A student-athlete may be admitted under a special exception to the institution’s normal entrance…to grant such exceptions is set forth in an official document published by the university” (Teague 2010). Admittance of student athletes who aren’t of the standard academic caliber are given special recognition, which creates feelings of not belonging, negatively affecting their self-worth and motivation. 33 of America’s most academically selective colleges, recruited athletes are nearly four times more likely to be admitted than other applicants of similar academic caliber (Allen 2012). It isn’t a secret that student-athletes receive special treatment during their recruitment and admissions process, even for top schools in the nation and in some cases, mostly in Division 1, continue to get special academic treatment throughout their college careers. This treatment and exceptions to requirements that give into the negative stereotype that student athletes are intellectually inferior and don’t belong in the classroom let alone the school put a bad connotation on many of the student-athletes that actually earned their admittance and role as a student-athletes at division 3 schools like Wesleyan University.


This study consists of several interviews of coaches and student-athletes at different division 3 liberal arts colleges. These interviews complement the literature-based research to better conduct my study of self-worth that determines the existence and lack of motivation and causes of lower levels of academic achievement in comparison to student that don’t play sports. I will use pseudonyms for the participants that I randomly choose as some of my questions can pose as controversial if their true identities are used. For those same reasons the names of the colleges that I discuss will also remain anonymous. My interview questions for both coaches and student-athletes surround the topics of how student-athletes are viewed on campus, the academic progress of student athletes, self-worth in athletics and academics, motivation in athletic and academics, the balance of athletics and academics, meaning of liberal arts and benefits of athletics. All participants have at least two years of experience as student-athletes to be better capable of answering questions pertaining to academics progress from high school into college and throughout their college experiences
Findings & Discussion:

Role of student athletes:

When asked what their role was as a student athlete, most replied that they represented the school as both a student and as an athlete. Most interviewees had a sense that all eyes were on them on and off campus and that their actions weighed more heavily than those of students who did not play sports and were not on the spotlight. Lincoln a senior at a liberal arts institution, felt that it was his duty to prove to people that had negative views towards student-athletes that they were wrong, that student-athletes are contributors to the college community and deserve to be at the school.

How student-athletes are viewed:     

Most interviewees would agree with Lincoln that the majority of people in their college community view student-athletes in a negative light and include that many people think that many of them would not have been able to get into the school if it weren’t for athletics; however, one participant felt that he was viewed in a positive light. Adam, a dual-sport athlete felt that his contribution to the community in the athletic and academic sphere have outsiders a healthy view of student-athletes.

Academic progress:

Every single student-athlete has had a decline in their G.P.A’s transitioning from High School to College. Adam points out that some high schools treat athletics as academic credit and that not being the case in college has a negative impact on their academic standing. Moving on from their freshman year and into their college careers, all but one participant experienced an increase in their G.P.A from their first year of college. For many student-athletes, academics were not an immediate concern as they entered the college environment. It wasn’t until they became accustomed to the college structure and established themselves in the community that they began to focus on academics.

Motivation towards academics and athletics:

The participants of the study did not express a high level of motivation towards academics. If any student-athlete was motivated towards a class it was to fulfill a requirement towards a major. Lincoln shares how he enjoyed every single aspect of his sport but this wasn’t the case for academics. Peter is, the only student-athlete to mention how his motivation towards academics stems from his G.P.A, being highly considered for jobs that he is considering upon graduation. Motivation towards their sport ties it with the amount of self-worth that student-athletes receive. Every single student-athlete who has participated in the interview receives a greater amount of self-worth participating in their sport than they do participating in academic assignments. Lincoln states, “We’re never going to be in front of a crowd that is solely cheering for something we have just done…. It’s a pretty cool feeling to do something in front of thousands of people and have them all see it and cheer for us and root us on… It just gives us a really great feeling of accomplishment to succeed and proof that our hard work is paying off” (Lincoln). Adam also expresses how athletics give you a sense of how much people care about what you’ve been working so hard towards and how academics just doesn’t click as well as athletics does. Lincoln elaborates further on how academics offers a different aspect of self-worth; a more private aspect in which success is represented through your grades. Peter’s assessment of self-worth in both the academic and athletic sphere is affiliated with the more work you put into it the more self-worth you will receive. However, the negative light in which student-athletes are viewed in has a negative impact on his academic efforts. Peter confesses how he feels negative stigma’s towards student-athletes are based on what people in the community see and what they think student-athletes care about. In actuality there is a lot they don’t see; he offers an example of how student-athletes go to the library when students usually aren’t there because they are practicing at the time that students are usually there, giving them the perception that student-athletes never go to the library.

What student-athletes get out of their experience:

Adam discusses how as a student-athlete one experiences countless times the realization that the things don’t go the way one had initially planned and that there are many thing that are out of one’s control. Students who play sports have a deeper understanding of how things do not go one’s way and you have to be prepared for that and adapt to it. Student-athlete are able to transfer such experiences and attitudes to their daily lives. Lincoln shares Adam’s benefits as sports have taught him to work within a team to overcome different types of obstacles, a sense of accountability and responsibility, and the capability to express opinions and how to deal being wrong and making mistakes.

A key find in the interview is that student-athletes tend to have higher levels of academic achievement while their sport is in season. Peter expresses how due to the in-season schedule, time management plays a role in concentrating on academics during the windows that his schedules set. During the off-season there is much more time in the hands of student-athletes than there are to put off assignments and to procrastinate. This refutes the argument that lack of time for student-athletes leads to lower levels of G.P.A because the majority of students in my study achieve higher levels of academic achievement during their season.

Wilson, a football player at a liberal arts school in New England shares his personal experience on what it means to be a football player on a liberal arts campus. He feels his role as a student-athlete is similar to that of Lincoln’s, which is to overcome the negative stigma of student athletes and to show how he is a leader on campus. He describes the stigma in his own words as a view that student-athletes seem not to be as intelligent as students who got in on their own merit. Lincoln describes how the viewpoint towards student-athletes on campus changes how he approaches certain (environments); “Generally I don’t introduce myself as an athlete in an academic setting so that people don’t view me as someone speaking from an athletic perspective because I found that when that happens, generally my point isn’t as important because whether from their own experiences or whether it’s because athletes get into schools easier, other people think that athletes are simply not as intelligent as they are (cite). There has been only a slight change in his G.P.A from high school into college. Wilson is one of the interviewees with the highest G.P.A’s; he is dedicated towards getting into graduate school and eventually obtaining his doctorate. Despite academics being extremely important to him, Wilson receives a much higher level of self-worth participating in football, “Doing something right in football is the best feeling you could ever have, because you’re not doing it for yourself like you would in a classroom, but you’re doing it for your team which makes it the best feeling you could ever get” (cite). Wilson says that he experiences high levels of self-worth within the academic sphere, however, it only lasts for a couple of minutes. The biggest opportunity that the liberal arts structure has given him is the ability to live outside of his comfort zone. Wilson also elaborates on how his strict in-season schedule helps him receive a higher G.P.A than during the off-season, “Every year my G.P.A is higher in-season that it is out of season; the first time I made the deans list last year was during my football season” (cite). It is more difficult for him to do work when he doesn’t have the time commitment of football pushing him. The things that football has given Wilson that he feels student that don’t play sports do not receive is a family away from a family, something to always have in the back of your head that you’re extremely dedicated to and a true definition of hard work that he feels are instilled in student-athletes that allows them to grind through assignments and projects to make it as good as they can. . One of the most important aspect he feels that athletics has given him is that, “Employers hire student athletes a lot because they know how to work despite the fact that their G.PA is lower, they know how to balance a schedule and they know how to actually grind”…They know how to handle pressure and failure. I go deeply into Wilson’s interview because he is a model student-athlete who excels as much in the classroom as he does in the football field. His level of academic achievement and G.P.A is higher than that of the other participants in the study and in liberal arts campuses in general, but because of self-worth, motivational controversy and negative stigmas of student-athletes he still experiences difficulty in balancing academics and athletics.


The other groups of participants that I interviewed are coaches of student-athletes at liberal arts division 3 schools. I choose to share the findings of two coaches, Sam and Clark. Coach Sam and Coach Clark share different experiences on how student-athletes are viewed on liberal arts campuses. Coach Clark feels that the overall view of student-athletes on campus is good and that the liberal arts structure allows kids to get involved in a lot of different things. Coach Sam feels that student-athletes have a negative light put upon them by the regular student body and professor that student-athletes are looked upon less in an academic setting because they get a good amount of support gaining admission in college. Both coaches agree that the first semester is always there hardest for student-athletes. Coach Clark sheds light on how the liberal arts structure offers a myriad of resources during their initial academic experiences in college. The sources include: Tutors in all subjects, holding them to high levels of accountability by keeping track of their schedules and syllabi, making sure players are meeting with professors and getting extra help if they need it. Coach Sam sheds light on how depending on their sport some student-athletes have it even more difficult. He poses an example where football players are immediately thrown into both the academic and athletic spheres as the football season begins as classes do; incoming baseball players on the other have time to adjust to the academic sphere being that they will not enter the athletic sphere until they their second semester. Both coaches agree that most student-athletes pick up their G.P.A’s as they continue their college careers and only a handful hover around their initial G.P.A that they received during their first semester of college. The number of students that had to take time off due to low levels of academic achievement for coach Clark is 2 while the number of for coach Sam is 5. Coach Clark describes the coaching style that coaches aims towards in the liberal arts structure. Self-worth in players is very important and coaches concentrate on building a players development and self-worth. Making sure kids know that coaches care about them and they are always supported is a priority for these coaches, “coaches like to see kids that have confidence and are excited to come to practice and to be in school” (Cite). Student-athletes and their motivation towards academic is another topic that Coach Clark and Coach Sam offer different experiences. Coach Clark speaks from personal experience as he describes that different student in a liberal arts environment are motivated towards academic for different reasons. Some student-athletes are motivated to graduate, get a good job and make a lot of money, others are motivated to get good grades to get a good internship to get great job. Personal pride and motivation from their families pushes them to do well academically and the players that are being helped through financial aid and have to pay part of their own tuition take special advantage of gain experiences and graduation from a top academic institution. Coach Sam is able to offer examples from the Division 1 level and how those student-athletes who are on scholarship are on completely different mindset in regards to academic motivation than student-athletes are division 3 liberal arts schools who are much more motivated towards academics.


The most popular topic concerning academe in all levels of college is the role of student-athletes and how they are viewed on campus. The correlation between student-athletes and low levels of academics is true even in the case of liberal arts division 3 schools. Low levels of academic achievement for student-athlete on a liberal arts campus stems from student-athlete receiving a significantly higher level of self-worth participating in their sport than they receive participating in academics. Motivational controversy occurs when student-athletes have extremely high levels of motivation towards their sport but cannot translate that motivation into the classroom. Despite stigma’s having a negative effect on student athletes and their role on campus, liberal arts schools offer a structure that is beneficial for student-athletes. A liberal arts environment provides student-athletes with resources to excel academically and athletically and with qualities that they will be able to apply to the world once they enter the workforce.

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