Speaking Out

Student Athletes' Performance

The Daily Pennsylvanian of Tuesday, February 20, contains an article about a new book called The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values. The article quotes the book to the effect that student athletes " ...underperform compared to what their standardized test scores predict for them." It is important to point out that the reverse was found to be true in a study done by the Penn Athletic Advisory Board about a decade ago. This study examined the performance in terms of GPA of 160 student athletes admitted between 1980 and 1989 who had academic-index (AI) scores below 161. (The AI is a composite of scores from the SAT, three achievement tests, and the high school class rank adjusted to a 200-800 scale.) Most of these students were admitted during the phase-in of the 161-rule; that is, the rule that sub-161 athletic recruits could not be admitted to Ivy schools. The study found that the majority of these students obtained a final GPA above 2.0, and 10% were above 3.0. It found no correlation between GPA and the AI, the SAT, the achievement tests, or the adjusted class rank. In other words, these student athletes generally performed better than was predicted by the standardized scores.

One can only speculate on the reason for these results. Different factors may dominate for different students. Some of the probable factors are the following: Coaches try to recruit students who have the character traits that would enable them to succeed at Penn. After all, why waste a slot on someone who would be academically ineligible. After the student athletes matriculate, they are subject to more scrutiny (by coaches) than most students receive to ensure that they are keeping up academically. Also, tutorial assistance is made readily available in an Athletic Department program. Finally, successful student athletes tend to be disciplined and good managers of time, which is essential for balancing sports and academics.

Penn has a tradition of outstanding coaches, many of whom have been among the best teachers I have known. I have been to a number of retirement parties and memorial services at which highly successful alumni have related how the most memorable and beneficial influence on them from their years at Penn was that of their coach. If one were to ask these alumni whether they would have traded their athletic experience at Penn for a higher GPA, they would think the question absurd. People who have had the experience of good varsity college athletics would understand why.

--Charles J. McMahon, Jr., Professor of Materials Sciences & Engineering

Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short, timely letters on University issues can be accepted, by Thursday at noon for the following Tuesday's issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines. Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated. --Ed.

Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 24, February 27, 2001