Back to school for former players

New NCAA tracking system makes earning degrees a win-win situation for ex-athletes and their schools
Friday, August 3, 2007 | 1:09 a.m. CDT; updated 7:45 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

KANSAS CITY — When Kansas State linebacker Terry Pierce announced in 2003 he was skipping his senior year to enter the NFL draft, he was only 13 credits short of graduating.

Four years later, Pierce has helped out himself and his old school by finishing his degree in finance.

As part of the NCAA’s revamped system for tracking whether athletes are on track to graduate, former scholarship athletes who return to school and complete their degrees earn bonus points that help boost their alma mater’s Academic Progress Rate. Schools with low APRs lose scholarships and eventually face bans from postseason tournaments.

The bonus points, combined with growth in distance learning and an increased interest in degree-completion among players and the professional leagues that employ them, has schools paying extra attention to getting former athletes back in school, said Phil Hughes, the president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics.

“Degree completion has always been relevant simply so a head coach can say to a recruit and his or her parents, ‘Yes, our kids graduate,’” said Hughes, also the associate athletic director of student services at Kansas State University. “When graduation rates started coming out, it became more relevant. And now with APR, it is going to be even more relevant.”

Since the 2003-04 school year, Pierce and more than 2,400 other former college athletes have finished their degrees, earning their schools bonus points, according to the NCAA.

Pierce, 26, of the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kan., said he was pleased his December graduation did more than land him a job as a financial planner at Merrill Lynch and Co.

“I regretted leaving K-State early my entire NFL career,” said Pierce, who played in 18 games for the Denver Broncos during the 2003 and 2004 seasons. “I think it was a catalyst for me to actually go back and finish.”

Kansas State’s focus on helping its former athletes graduate began after former Coach Bill Snyder’s 16-year coaching stint began in 1989. Snyder, credited with one of the biggest program turnarounds in college football history, wanted to help “the players that stood with him through those growing years and through the first painful years of his era,” Hughes said.

Similar degree-completion programs began cropping up at other schools around the county in the 1980s, said Hughes.

The largest is an effort of the National Consortium of Academics and Sports in Orlando, Fla., whose approximately 225 member schools allow their former athletes to return to school with the same tuition breaks they received in their final year of eligibility. Since 1984, more than 27,000 former athletes have returned to consortium schools and more than 12,000 have graduated.

“It shows a lot of schools were actually doing this anyway but now they are going to get credit for doing it,” said Richard Lapchick, the group’s director. “And for those schools who weren’t doing it, it will be a great boost to encourage them to do so.”

At Kansas State, most of the 15 to 25 former athletes who are pursuing their degrees played football for the Wildcats. And some of them got off track when they stopped attending classes after bowl games, choosing instead to spend the spring semester training with an agent, said Jill Shields, who supervises the Second Wind Program as the assistant director of student services.

But only about 1 percent of college players make it in the NFL, the league said. And even then, the average career lasts about four years.

“I think they absolutely overestimate their athletic abilities. At the time, they don’t see their need for a college degree or don’t think they will have to utilize it,” Shields said. “You hear a lot of times, ‘I wish I would have taken it more seriously when I was on campus.’”

When former players contact the school, they are generally no more than two semesters, sometimes a single class, away from graduating. For that final push, many of the active professional athletes turn to their teams for help in finding needed classes that won’t interfere with training and games.

Since 1991, the NFL has helped hundreds of active players return to school, with an average of 16 graduating each year, said Christopher L. Henry, the league’s director of player development.

“The league benefits by having guys who are educated and well-rounded and leave the league and are successful,” Henry said. “The league wants to have people out in the community who are emissaries for the league.”

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