Athletes to Scholars


A primary example of how we have let old habits dictate our actions in a new era is athletics.  In the past 15 years, athletics have become one of the most significant draws for prospective students; in a recent survey of prospective students, athletic opportunities drew the largest percent of male applicants of all possible reasons while it drew the second largest percent of female applicants. Over 55% of residential undergraduate students are scholarship athletes. We continue to expand our offerings with the recent additions of tennis, bowling, and e-sports. Athletics will likely only increase in importance in drawing students to residential programs as online programs increase in quantity and quality, as noted by the Chronicle. No doubt, some faculty members will have mixed views on the role of athletics or individual sports, but athletics are an important part of NWC’s identity and diversity. 

Since we have embraced athletics, we should make them part of our institutional plans and leverage them in achieving our goals and providing a distinct and valuable experience. Yet, the word “athletics” is conspicuously absent from our most recent Strategic Plan (except in reference to the academic program “athletic training”). Other higher education institutions have realized the role athletics can play in an institution achieving its academic mission. Vice President for Academic Affairs Terese McCarty speaks to the success Union College has had in integrating academics and athletics.

Athletics can be a great ally in perpetuating the uniquely American, highly effective model of liberal-arts education. It is not unusual for students to come out of high school with deeper interest in sports than in physics or literature. An environment in which coaches put academic priorities first, and in which faculty members respect the importance to students of athletics and other out-of-class activities, can draw students more deeply into the life of an academic community and more deeply into the life of the mind.

Another concern is that the retention rates of our athletes in some sports, such as volleyball and soccer, often lag behind the rest of the student body. The retention for JV volleyball was 44% for 2017-2018 while it was 67% for JV women’s basketball and 85% for varsity volleyball. Qualitative data suggest that students who are injured or who are dissatisfied with their playing time frequently drop out of school or transfer elsewhere rather than remaining at NWC. 

Given how important athletics are for recruitment and given our concerns over retention, it is surprising that we haven’t done more to ensure the academic success of our student athletes.

Ideas from Other Institutions

One school has a twice-yearly student-athlete successsummit. An athletic director says the following about the summit.

It’s an opportunity for us to bring faculty, advisors, and other campus administrators together with our coaches and athletic department people. We throw out issues that are central for discussion and we build programming. It gives us a chance for dialogue, communication, new issues, and probably the biggest thing is just relationships. You get to see people face-to-face and build trust and integrity.

Other higher education institutions have a member of the athletic team or the athletics department itselfreport to an academic-focused member of the administration, such as the dean of faculty. In areporton the topic of academic and athletic integration, the NCAA recommended having the athletic director attend student life divisional meetings and assigning coaches to relevant campus committees. Smith College is one of several that have a faculty liaisonfor each sport. 

Suggestions for Northwestern

NWC should create a cross-functional work group to explore how to offer integrative experiences to our student-athletes that better blend the spheres of academics and athletics. This work group can also investigate and work to increase the retention of student-athletes as well as those who transition out of collegiate athletic participation. NWC should also consider the inclusion of athletic staff (beyond kinesiology faculty) on key committees (e.g. institutional assessment, multiethnic resource, etc.).

More specifically, Northwestern could develop an “Athletes to Scholars” Program, which would focus on the preeminence of our academic mission while upholding the importance of participation in athletics. The program would address transitioning our athletes from “I came here to play ball,” to “I’m here to learn how I can complete God’s redeeming work in the world”. In the program, coaches, faculty and staff could speak with one voice as to the primary mission of the college. Coaches are currently shouldering most of this load, doing their part in personal and spiritual formation, but this needs to be a “team” (coaches, faculty, administration) effort. The program should feature faculty from the Arts and Humanities Division, in particular.  We want our athletes to embrace love of learning and the basic building blocks of learning—reading, writing, speaking, and critical thinking—the very things that are hallmarks of this Division.

Strategic Plan

Athletics are conspicuously absent from the strategic plan …

Additional Resources