For Black Bears, academic success a priority

Posted April 30, 2010, at 10:36 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 19, 2010, at 11:19 a.m.

ORONO, Maine — Student-athletes at the University of Maine face challenges not only on the field of play but in the classroom.

They are able to balance those demands and perform on a par academically with those across the NCAA Division I spectrum and better than the overall UMaine student population, according to statistics produced by the federal government and the NCAA.

Division I student-athletes must not only attend classes, study and perform well in the classroom, they also are required to attend team meetings, practices and weight training sessions and travel extensively to compete.

To be eligible to participate, student-athletes must meet academic requirements set forth by the university and NCAA guidelines for all Division I scholarship athletes.

UMaine director of athletics Blake James said his department has a three-pronged approach in working with its student-athletes.

“Their academic success is as important a part of their time here as anything,” James said. “Our three goals are, we want athletic excellence, academic success and we want to help them grow as people. There’s nothing more important to me than helping them earn their degree while they’re here. The student comes first in student-athlete.”

Student-athletes hit the books

The NCAA measures student-athlete academic performance using the Academic Progress Rates and federal graduation rates.

The minimum APR — explained in an adjacent story — set by the NCAA is 925.

During 2008-09, all but one UMaine team met the standard. Men’s indoor track scored 917, but its four-year APR — covering 2005-06, 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09 — was 953.

The initial penalty for a team that failed to meet the minimum APR would be a public warning letter from the NCAA for poor performance. Serious offenders can lose practice time, scholarships and the ability to compete in the postseason.

UMaine field hockey, women’s soccer, women’s cross country and men’s swimming (which does not have any scholarship athletes) all registered perfect scores (1,000) in 2008-09.

A perfect score means each student-athlete on the team was enrolled at UMaine and met all academic requirements during both semesters of the academic year.

UMaine’s multiyear APR rates were all well above 925, led by women’s cross country (1,000), women’s soccer (996) and men’s cross country (986). The lowest was baseball (948), a calculation that took into account 100 student-athletes since the fall of 2005.

“I think NCAA has done a good job of emphasizing the importance of academic success and putting structure in place,” James said. “I think the APR in particular helps in addressing that.”

The graduation rates released earlier this year show 64 percent of the UMaine student-athletes who enrolled during 2002-03 graduated within six years.

That is 5 percent higher than the graduation rate for the entire UMaine student body, which in that sample earned diplomas 59 percent of the time.

The most recent NCAA graduation rates pertain to the academic period ending August 2008, which means they are almost two years behind.

“I’m always leery of graduation rates, because I don’t think they always give you a good picture,” James said. “The unfortunate thing is, it’s one of the only things you can use as a comparative analysis.”

The four-class average, which includes incoming classes from 1999 through 2002, reinforce the above figures. UMaine student-athletes during that time graduated 64 percent of the time compared to 57 percent for all UMaine students and 63 percent for Division I student-athletes.

“Anytime you’re ahead of the [general student] population, I think you have to be pleased,” James said. “I think it’s something we can push harder.”

UMaine student-athletes also had a slightly higher cumulative GPA, which is based on a 4.0 scale. The university’s athletes posted a cumulative 3.04 GPA for fall 2009, while the general student body average was at 3.01.

Ann Maxim, director of academic support services for UMaine athletics, pointed to the UMaine Scholar-Athlete program as another example of the Black Bears’ academic achievements.

“Every year the last six years we’ve had over 50 percent [of student-athletes] with a 3.0 [GPA] or better,” said Maxim, whose department exists to assist the students in balancing the rigors of class and competition.

UMaine also holds its own in terms of student-athlete graduation rates when compared to the universities of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, its New England Land Grant counterparts that sponsor Football Championship Subdivision programs.

The four-class average in this category places UMaine (64 percent) ahead of both UMass (62) and URI (57).

As of September, there were 414 student-athletes playing for the Black Bears. Of that number, 278 (67 percent) were receiving athletics-related aid.

James pointed out scholarships are not all “full rides” that cover the student-athlete’s entire tuition, room and board, fees and books. Instead, the equivalent of 200 full grants-in-aid are distributed among the 278 recipients.

Men’s swimming and diving is the only UMaine sport that does not award any athletics-related aid. Men’s track and field (both indoor and outdoor) and cross country, combined, have two scholarship equivalencies to dispense among the athletes.

By contrast, the women’s cross country and track teams have 11 scholarships available. Those numbers reflect in part UMaine’s compliance with Title IX guidelines.

Title IX requires that women be provided an equitable opportunity to participate in sports as men, that female athletes receive athletic scholarship dollars proportional to their participation and that all other services provided to men are available to women.

Battle of the sexes

One inescapable fact at UMaine, as in all of Division I, is that women outperform men in the classroom.

Among 17 Black Bear programs, women’s teams had nine of the top 11 GPAs last fall. Women’s swimming and diving led the way with a 3.41 GPA, followed by women’s cross country (3.36), field hockey (3.28), men’s cross country (3.25) and women’s indoor (3.22) and outdoor (3.22) track and field.

Women also have a higher graduation rate across the board, again according to the NCAA statistics for incoming classes in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002. That includes among UMaine student-athletes (women 83 percent, men 50 percent), all UMaine students (women 60, men 55) and all Division I student-athletes (women 64, men 59).

UMaine teams in the classroom

The NCAA provides sport-specific graduation data for a handful of sports. They include men’s football, baseball, basketball and track/cross country, along with women’s basketball and track/cross country.

The remaining sports are grouped together as “Other.”

The 2010 numbers (incoming classes 1999-2002) show women’s cross country and track led the way at UMaine, graduating 88 percent of their scholarship athletes. It is worth noting that sample includes 20 or more student-athletes during that period.

Women’s basketball graduated 69 percent (16 to 20 student-athletes), while the other sports combined graduated 84 percent of the time within six years.

Among the men’s programs, cross country and track also set the tone (88 percent), although the sample includes only 6 to 10 athletes. Basketball graduated 67 percent (6-10 athletes), with baseball (59 percent, 16-20 athletes), and football (42 percent, 20-plus athletes). The baseball number is 12 percent higher than the Division I average (47).

The “other’’ men’s sport is hockey, which graduated 57 percent of 20-plus student-athletes.

UMaine football’s number has lagged behind the NCAA FCS graduation rate of 54 percent. Maine coach Jack Cosgrove said there are numerous challenges working with a roster upwards of 80 young men.

They include bringing in large numbers of students from varying social, economic and academic backgrounds who must try to adapt to a rural, geographically isolated school. That leads to transfers, which negatively impact the team’s graduation rate.

“Looking at graduation rates as a whole I don’t think is a fair assessment,” Cosgrove said. “The Academic Progress Rate is a much fairer assessment of academic progress toward a degree.”

UM athletes’ studies diverse

UMaine student-athletes are matriculated in a variety of academic majors, ranging from kinesiology and physical education (KPE), the most popular major, to studio art.

Of those UMaine student-athletes who had declared a major by last September, 80, or 19.3 percent, were in KPE. That includes teaching and coaching, exercise science and administration.

Nearly the same number (77, or 18.6 percent) were “undeclared.” Other popular areas of study among student-athletes are child development and family relations (21, 5.1 percent), biology (19, 4.6 percent), and management (18, 4.3 percent). There also were 25 athletes studying in one of the engineering or engineering technology programs.

Nursing, communications, finance and marketing were other majors that included at least 10 student-athletes.

“It’s an impressive list of majors,” James offered.

UMaine `team’ supports athletes

Structuring an effective learning environment and helping student-athletes achieve their academic goals is a multipronged effort.

UMaine athletes work with their class professors and academic department advisers, but they also are held accountable by their respective coaching staffs and UMaine’s office of student-athlete academic support services.

Maxim’s three-person staff also includes learning specialist Myer Taksel and counselor Crissy Kerluke. They are responsible for overseeing the academic progress of more than 400 student-athletes.

“There’s a lot of it [the job] to love. Every athlete is assigned an athletic counselor,” said Maxim, who explained each is also generally in contact with a coach about academic performance.

Student-athletes work with academic support services to develop goals, choose majors and work around difficulties they may encounter. First-year athletes and members of select teams are asked to return periodic academic progress reports signed by their teachers.

Most student-athletes also are required to report their grades weekly, which helps the coaches and support staff detect problems early in order to help keep the students on track.

“We don’t want anybody to fall through the cracks. We don’t want any surprises,” Maxim said. “The whole point is that they progress to a good semester and graduate and be able to balance their academics with their sport.”

Maxim explained she and her staff, with the support and cooperation of the coaches, make it clear to the student-athletes that nobody is going to do their work for them. Time management is a critical skill, but one more is most important.

“It’s managing themselves,” she said. “We rely on the student to be the responsible one because it’s their education. It’s making the most of the time that they have, true, but it’s also the choices they make.”

Coaches are free to implement academic rules that will benefit their student-athletes. Women’s basketball coach Cindy Blodgett assigns each player to one member of the coaching staff.

Usually, players meet with a coach once a week to talk about academics. It also has benefits in terms of scheduling.

“That allows me to know when we have a little more heavy week and the kids are stressed more than normal,” Blodgett said. “We try to take that into account.”

Further, most team members are required to attend mandatory team study halls in the Sezak Lounge, located in Memorial Gym. Incoming freshmen must complete eight hours per week.

Other hours are dictated by GPA, with those earning 2.5-2.9 required to put in six hours, 3.0-3.4 four hours. Anyone at 3.5 or above is excused.

“I think all people want and need some sort of structure,” Blodgett said. “I know we’re basketball coaches but, really, at the end of the day, you want to make sure that your kids graduate and that when they leave here, they’re in a position to be productive citizens and get the job that they really want to be doing.”

Cosgrove praised the efforts of the academic support services team for its commitment to making sure each student-athlete receives the help he or she needs.

“The structure that we create through time management is enhanced by the professionalism of our academic support staff, which is headed up by Ann Maxim,” Cosgrove said. “They don’t get enough credit for what they do.”

James said the overall academic success of UMaine student-athletes is a reflection of several factors. The most important are the commitment to academics by the athletes, the support provided by UMaine’s academic advisers and athletic counselors, and the emphasis on academics reflected in the NCAA’s academic policies.

“I think one of the great things about athletics is, it provides a tremendous amount of structure,” James said. “I think we have a great support system in place and, to the NCAA’s credit, they’ve really emphasized the importance of academics in a student-athlete’s life.”

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