Athletics Department Monitors School Work

By Millie Hogue
The Razorback Reporter

University of Arkansas football player Jared Cornelius meets Dec. 1 with an assigned tutor. As a freshman student-athlete, Cornelius’ academic progress is closely monitored by athletic department faculty. Millie Hogue / Razorback Reporter

University of Arkansas football player Jared Cornelius meets Dec. 1 with an assigned tutor. As a freshman student-athlete, Cornelius’ academic progress is closely monitored by athletic department faculty.
Millie Hogue / Razorback Reporter

On any given day of the semester, clipboard-toting students can be found lingering outside the doors of about 70 classrooms at the University of Arkansas, their eyes peeled for the telltale flash of the Razorback red backpack that marks student-athletes. The athletes’ responsibility is to arrive at class, sign in, and the student-checker will be on the way. If not, the checker will launch an email message chain that, within 30 minutes will reach the appropriate coach.

That UA athletics department system was developed a few years ago to track athletes who skip class. In response to NCAA rules, student-athletes must to sit for 10 percent of scheduled competitions if they miss more than 15 percent of classes each semester, according to UA’s own rule. The class-absence rule was designed in the past decade to protect student-athletes, some of whom, NCAA officials think, slip through the college education system.

“Class checkers” and similar programs are intense and require plenty of manpower, said Eric Wood, UA associate athletic director of student services, but ultimately, they are a useful way to keep student-athletes on track.

“Most students, nationally, respond to two things: money and playing time,” Wood said. “So when those stakes are brought up, it gets their attention.”

Staff member Karen Gober mans the desk Dec. 1 at the University of Arkansas Office of Student-Athlete Success. In the next room, Razorback athletes get help with their homework. Students and their tutors often work late into the night at this athlete exclusive center, which accepts appointments until 10 p.m. Millie Hogue / Razorback Reporter

Staff member Karen Gober mans the desk Dec. 1 at the University of Arkansas Office of Student-Athlete Success. In the next room, Razorback athletes get help with their homework. Students and their tutors often work late into the night at this athlete exclusive center, which accepts appointments until 10 p.m.
Millie Hogue / Razorback Reporter

At the university, that’s precisely the carrot administrators use, marching student-athletes through required study hours, grade checks, advising appointments and learning skills evaluations. The university has offices that offer each of those services to all students, but the athletics department has opted to create a version of each program, tailored to student-athletes.

By directing the office of athlete academic services, Wood is able to oversee department tutoring programs, the career center, grade-tracking software, class-checkers and academic counselors.

“We want to know everything about our student-athletes, about their classroom behavior, their classroom etiquette, their attendance. Anything that could take away from them getting a good grade, we want to know,” Wood said.

Hyper Vigilance

At the university, that hyper vigilance has proved effective. The four-year graduation rate for student-athletes was 76 percent in 2007, the last year figures were available for athletes and the student population. That’s well above 36.7 percent for students overall, according to the Office for Institutional Research. In 2013, department officials reported a record 3.18-combined GPA for their 460 student-athletes.

A UA student-athlete signs in for her tutoring appointment Dec. 1 at the University of Arkansas Office of Student-Athlete Success. By summer 2015, appointments like these will take place across the street at the new Student-Athlete Success Center. Millie Hogue / Razorback Reporter

A UA student-athlete signs in for her tutoring appointment Dec. 1 at the University of Arkansas Office of Student-Athlete Success. By summer 2015, appointments like these will take place across the street at the new Student-Athlete Success Center.
Millie Hogue / Razorback Reporter

National outrage over the treatment of top collegiate competitors has maintained a steady surge in recent years as players protest financial inequities and expose academic dishonesty. Even the most prestigious institutions are not immune. The University of North Carolina faces several lawsuits after it was revealed that athletic directors at the school steered their students toward an entirely fake degree program for almost 18 years, according to recently disclosed public records.

For universities, that disclosure is a grave reminder of the very real temptations and the serious consequences that accompany academic dishonesty, or failure. For the NCAA, the UNC debacle is an example of precisely the situation they’re hoping to avoid with a shift to more stringent academic performance requirements for athletes and a loosening of the university coin purse. Schools can now spend more on their athletes, but they also have to prove that students are succeeding in the classroom.

If they don’t, they risk being barred from post-season play, which earns money for the institution. The NCAA proved just how serious it was about this rule in 2013, when it banned the enormously competitive University of Connecticut from the men’s national basketball tournament because of players’ poor academic standing, according to the NCAA website. Eligible in the next year, UConn won the men’s national basketball championship.

Academic Performance

Click to enlarge. Millie Hogue / Razorback Reporter

Click to enlarge. Millie Hogue / Razorback Reporter

Rules changes such of these have catapulted athlete academics from the realm of a nice recruiting statistic to a position of vital importance. If athletes don’t perform on paper, they won’t get the opportunity to perform at all.

At the university, ineligibility can translate into a serious financial handicap, such as loss of post-season revenue. The Razorbacks were the 17th most profitable football program in the nation in 2009-2010, generating more than $26.5 million in profit, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“At the end of the day, it pays to invest in athletes’ academics,” said Sharon Hunt, UA faculty athletics representative. “Part of it is an arms race in terms of recruiting, and one of the pieces I think we’re going to shine is academics.”

That’s why the university has made their extensive athlete academic programs a major selling point for prospective athletes, going so far as to invest about $27 million in a new Student-Athlete Success Center, set for completion in 2015. The center will more than triple space for athlete services, Hunt said.

“With our academic resources in terms of budget, staffing, and programs, I don’t think there is another school out there that outdoes us,” Wood said. “Once we get that new facility and space, we’ll be competitive with any program in the country.”

Officials hope UA athletics will continue to grow.

“I don’t know if we’re building model citizens,” Hunt said, “but I can tell you that we’re trying to. We’re trying to equip athletes with the resources and the skills they need to be successful.”