Should There Be Gainful Employment for College Athletes?

College athletics, particularly the big-revenue sports of NCAA Division I football and basketball, have been in the news lately for less-than-athletic reasons. The recent push by the Northwestern football team to unionize has led to further discussion of whether college athletes* should be compensated beyond their athletic scholarships. And the University of Connecticut’s national championship team in men’s basketball comes a year after they were banned from the tournament due to woeful academic performance and an eight percent graduation rate. (Big congrats to the UConn women’s team, who won another national championship while graduating 92% of students!)

Now things may not be quite as bad as they look. The NCAA’s preferred measure of academic progress is the Academic Progress Rate (APR), which is scored from 0 to 1000 based on retention and eligibility of athletes. Colleges aren’t penalized for athletes who leave without a degree, as long as they stay eligible while competing. This measure is likely more reasonable for athletes who leave for the professional ranks, but this excludes students who exhaust their eligibility and do not become professionals. The APR doesn’t take graduation into account—a significant limitation in this case.

I can’t help think of what could happen if the general principles of gainful employment—a hot political topic in the vocational portions of higher education—would apply to students with athletic scholarships. While the primary metrics of the current gainful employment proposal (debt to income ratios) may not apply to students with full scholarships, some sort of earning and employment measure could be used to track the future success of former athletes. If former players on college teams were unable to obtain professional athletic or academic major-related employment, the team could be subject to sanctions.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on gainful employment for college athletes in the comment section. I’m not taking an actual stand in favor or against this idea, but it’s something potentially worth additional discussion.

* I’m sure the NCAA would rather that I call them “student-athletes,” but I use “athletes” and “students” where appropriate.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

4 thoughts on “Should There Be Gainful Employment for College Athletes?”

  1. Robert, I think applying gainful employment to intercollegiate athletics is a very interesting idea. I certainly think if gainful employment were applied to college athletics it would put more pressure on universities and their athletic departments to make academics more of a priority for their athletes, which is currently not the case and a MAJOR issue. Time spent on academics and career related endeavors takes away time from athletics, which is not taken very well in revenue-generating sports especially. Many athletes leave college with little to no career/life experience outside of the classroom and athletic field, which makes it difficult to find employment when competing with others who have relevant work experience (internships, volunteering, research, etc). Unless the athlete was an all-star and could easily network, many athletes are left to totally fend for themselves with nothing more than memories of winning an athletic competition.

  2. The issue that would arise is who is accountable for the lack of gainful employment? Is it the university, athletic department, coaches, etc? There would be a lot of finger pointing. Athletic departments would say the university failed to educate, while the university would say athletic departments put too many restrictions on athletes. Also, if an athletic department is self-sufficient then federal funding isn’t a very big deal to them if they are the ones accountable.
    This is definitely an interesting topic. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you for sharing your insights. Another concern to consider is that the post-college measures wouldn’t be observed for about 5-7 years after many students started college. If a coach doesn’t plan to stay that long, then he or she may not have a reason to care about future results. It could be resolved by holding some of the coach’s salary in escrow, but that’s really unlikely.

      1. This is very true. I know in Division I football the average time a coach stays at school is a little over two years. So, it would be hard to keep coaches accountable.

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