GOALS research portrays experiences of student-athletes
By Jack Copeland
The NCAA News
Division III is enhancing its own research capabilities through recent actions such as funding a staff position devoted to that purpose and designing studies to answer some of the division’s thorniest questions.
But it also is benefiting from an increased strategic commitment by the broader Association to research initiatives — as shown by how the division is learning more about its student-athletes from a recent groundbreaking NCAA study.
“Division III student-athletes care about athletics participation as much — in many ways and in many dimensions — as student-athletes in Divisions I and II,” said Tom Paskus, NCAA principal research scientist, citing findings from the Growth, Opportunities, Aspirations and Learning of Students in College (GOALS) study.
The study — which involved more than 20,000 student-athletes in all three divisions, including nearly 7,000 in Division III — is producing the most comprehensive look yet at experiences of student-athletes at the Association’s member institutions. The student-athletes answered questions about their athletics, academic and social experiences in college, as well as their overall student-athlete experience. Health and well-being, time commitment and demographic questions also were included.
The NCAA research staff began releasing results of the study in January at the Orlando Convention and recently reported early Division III-specific findings at the spring meetings of the Division III Management and Presidents Councils.
In many ways, GOALS data indicate that Division III student-athletes have much in common with counterparts in Divisions I and II.
“Putting time in their sport is as important to them, excelling is important, the team aspects are important,” Paskus said. “But there are other ways in which they’re a little different. These students are there for a rich student-athlete experience. We don’t see in the data that, ‘I’m just a student,’ or ‘I’m just an athlete.’ There’s a good balance.”
Ann Kearns, NCAA associate director of research, points to another key finding for Division III members.
“They’re spending a lot of time on their sport and they want to continue to do that. But when they’re choosing an institution, they’re doing so based primarily on the academic offerings of the institution.”
Survey results indicate that nearly half of Division III respondents chose their school because of academic offerings or reputation. Most also responded that they would attend the school regardless of who coaches their sport, and most would attend the school again if they were starting over.
Division III Vice President Dan Dutcher says those findings are encouraging.
“To me, the word it suggests is integration,” he said. “I think we’ve given special emphasis in the last few years to the concept of integration. It’s not a new concept — it’s been in our philosophy statement — but this helps bring into clearer focus the extent to which the athletics experience is integrated into the academic experience in Division III. The results suggest that generally, there is a positive relationship between the athletics and academic experience.”
The GOALS study — along with research initiatives sponsored specifically by Division III and focusing on subjects like awarding of financial aid and the impact of education and testing on drug use (see accompanying article) — provide a fuller picture of the division and its attributes than ever before.
Thanks to GOALS, that picture now includes a comprehensive look at what student-athletes think about the Division III athletics experience.
“Division III always has been tough for us, because we haven’t had entrée to data on student-athletes,” Paskus said. “In Divisions I and II, we had information from the (initial-eligibility) clearinghouse, and we could find the students in college and afterward.
“It’s not because research has been preoccupied with the other divisions — it’s just been, how do we get entrée onto these campuses and access to these students?”
GOALS’ approach to measuring the student-athlete experience is especially well-suited to addressing questions of particular interest in Division III — such as, are student-athletes representative of the general student body?
“The survey was structured so that we weren’t just looking at the student-athlete experience, but also the student experience,” Kearns said. “We were looking at the experiences they’ve had in athletics, but also how they feel about their major, about relationships with faculty and other students, and their college goals and aspirations.
“From that standpoint, there’s a lot of opportunity to look at aspects that aren’t unique to student-athletes, and ask, how does this special population compare?”
Some other conclusions that Paskus and Kearns say can be drawn from GOALS data:
More than half of Division III student-athletes do not participate in other extracurricular activities, and most of them cite lack of interest (fewer than than 25 percent cite lack of time). “Student-athletes do athletics because it’s an activity they love,” Paskus said. “Whereas other students may choose certain other activities on campus, these students have chosen athletics. But there also is some involvement in other activities, and they’re not saying they feel like they can’t do other things.”
“They’re attending campus events, and it’s not just sporting events,” Kearns added. “They’re attending art exhibits and speakers and cultural events. They may not be participating in music or other activities, but they’re supporting them.”
Nearly two-thirds of Division III student-athletes feel that other students view them more as athletes than as students (compared with more than three-fourths of Divisions I and II student-athletes), and large percentages of male student-athletes feel that professors view them more as an athlete than a student (about half of football and men’s basketball student-athletes and 43 percent of student-athletes in other men’s sports said so, but again, the percentages are lower than in Divisions I and II).
“There are significant numbers of student-athletes who say others view them as athletes first, but I don’t get the sense that’s troublesome for them,” Paskus said. “It doesn’t affect their relationship generally with faculty; it doesn’t prevent them from becoming engaged academically or engaged otherwise.”
More than half of Division III student-athletes report typically spending more than six hours a day during the playing season in academically related activities, while less than a third spend six or more hours daily in athletically related activities.
“Even though student-athletes may be traveling away from campus, it doesn’t seem like they’re missing a lot of class time, in comparison to what we perceive other students are doing,” Paskus said. “It looks like, when they’re on campus, they’re engaged in the classroom, and if they have to miss class, they handle it responsibly for the most part.”
There is much more information to be mined from the study, and Paskus and Kearns anticipate devoting significant time in coming months to doing just that.
“We have a representative sample of Division III institutions and student-athletes, and we have some interesting information on what they think about being a Division III student-athlete,” Paskus said.
“We have certain topical areas that we plan to write pieces about, but we’re also trying to be responsive to what the Division III governance structure really wants to look at. It’s keeping us focused on what things will be most useful right away — a lot of the next 12 to 18 months will be spent responding to presidents and others on things they need to know.”
Dutcher says the study will be invaluable to the governance structure because it enhances the student-athlete voice in a division that already emphasizes participation by student-athletes in decision-making.
“We have student-athletes who are voting members of our Management Council, and we have an active and effective Student-Athlete Advisory Committee,” Dutcher said. “But we need to remember, that even as those folks do a great job, they represent a larger body. Here’s a study that gives us feedback from that larger body.”
On a practical level, data from the study can guide Division III in using strategic grants to address student-athlete issues that “might benefit from greater focus and a greater allocation of resources,” Dutcher said.
“When we look at our philosophy statement and really focus on the quality of the student-athlete experience being at the heart of what we’re about in Division III, that’s why this information is so important,” he said. “It’s telling us directly what student-athletes feel about the quality of their current experience.”