Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

The Impact of Intercollegiate Athletics on Graduation Rates among Major NCAA Division I Universities: Implications for College Persistence Theory and Practice

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

The Impact of Intercollegiate Athletics on Graduation Rates among Major NCAA Division I Universities: Implications for College Persistence Theory and Practice

Article excerpt


One of the most pressing issues facing American universities is the number of students who fail to graduate. Low graduation rates cost universities scarce resources; weaken the ability to meet educational objectives; and are perceived to reflect the university's ability to meet the educational, social, and emotional needs of students. Moreover, retention and graduation rates are a major component of national ranking schemes, such as the US News Annual Ranking of US Colleges and Universities. Although the use of retention and graduation rates as measures of performance indicators have been criticized (Astin, 1993; Ronco, 1994), many state legislatures and boards of higher education nevertheless link freshman retention and graduation rates to university budgets as a component of performance-based funding (Carnevale, Johnson, & Edwards, 1998). In addition, Federal Law requires colleges and universities to disclose their graduation rates along with campus crime rates as part of the Student Right to Know Act (Federal Register, December 1, 1995).

Crosscutting the concern about retention and graduation rates is the long-standing tension between the emphasis placed on academic performance and intercollegiate athletic program success. A voluminous body of research exists that examines the relationship between postsecondary graduation and intercollegiate athletics. This research, however, has almost exclusively focused on how the graduation rate of student athletes is affected by their participation in intercollegiate athletic programs (American College Testing Service, 1984; DeBrock, Hendricks, & Koenker, 1996; Pascarella, Bohr, & Terenzini, 1995). In fact, we are aware of only one study (Tucker, 1992) that specifically examines how successful intercollegiate athletic programs, in general, and national prominence in sports, specifically, effect institutional retention and graduation rates.

Given the interest in the relationship between retention and graduation and the vast literature addressing intercollegiate athletics and academic performance, it is surprising that the combination of the two has produced so little empirical attention. In this article, in order to begin addressing this gap in the literature, we explore the relationship between intercollegiate athletic program success and theories of student persistence by examining the impact that athletic programs have on institutional graduation rates.

Theoretical Perspectives on Student Persistence

Research on retention and graduate rates often focuses on the overall issue of student persistence, in other words, the degree to which an individual is repetitively and/or continuously enrolled at an educational organization in order to achieve his or her goal of eventual graduation. Research on student persistence generally adopts one of several theoretic perspectives; economic, interactional, organizational, psychological, and societal (Tinto, 1986). Thus far, the interactionist model developed by Tinto (1975, 1986), which is based on the theoretic perspective of Emile Durkheim, has generated the largest amount of empirical attention and empirical assessment (Cabrera, Castaneda, Nora, & Hengster, 1992; Munro, 1981; Pascarella & Chapman, 1983; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1980; Terenzini, Pascarella, Theophilides, & Lorang, 1985).

Tinto's model (1975; 1986) first assumes that incoming students possess a set of individual traits (e.g. age, sex, race/ethnicity, high school achievement history, encouragement and socioeconomic status of their parents) that influence their overall commitment to the institution of higher education, as well as their specific commitment to attain a college degree. Second, the individual traits of students, combined with their commitment to higher education appear to influence their academic and social integration into a specific educational organization (e.g., community college, university). …

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