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Colleges should pay for tuition until athletes earn degrees

All across the country freshly minted college graduates are setting out in search of jobs. Unfortunately, many of their classmates—those who spent four or five years as scholarship athletes—are making the search at a distinct disadvantage. About 1% of them, the outstanding athletes, will play their sports professionally: the other 99% are job hunting, and more than half of those who played at the Division I level are brandishing only their varsity letters, not diplomas.

With the demands placed upon Division I football and basketball players, it's a wonder that they have time to master their playbooks, much less to study diligently enough to graduate. In fact, in the lower divisions, in which sports are more integrated into other aspects of college life, athletes tend to perform better academically than the student body as a whole. But playing for a big-time athletic power is a full-time job. As a result, the contract between athlete and school is shamefully onesided. In return for four (or five, if the athlete has been redshirted) years of attending practices, lifting weights, watching films and, oh yes, playing games, the athlete is given the opportunity to receive a college education. But it doesn't always work out very well. While the university gets its 250 pounds of flesh, the athlete is often not much better prepared for a career than he was after high school.

In an era in which a bachelor's degree usually is required even for entry-level jobs, the contract needs to be rewritten. If an athlete upholds his end of the bargain—that is, if he practices and plays for four years—he ought to be entitled to work toward his degree at the university's expense for as long as it takes him to get it. This is not to encourage shirkers; the scholarship would remain in force only as long as the former varsity athlete has a declared major and is working toward a degree.

But if the athlete could spare only three nights a week away from a job, and therefore had to attend class for another four years to earn a degree, so be it. And what if our student-athlete played his ball at Oklahoma but found himself living in Florida? He should be allowed to complete his education in a comparable academic program at a school near his home, with the tuition paid for by Oklahoma. We're talking only tuition here, not room and board.

Sounds like a lot for schools to cope with, especially in these days of rising costs. All the more reason why the proposed contract makes sense. If colleges shudder at the thought of footing the bill for their former athletes for years on end, then let them educate their athletes properly the first time around, while they are full-time students.

True, the new contract would have a varied impact on NCAA member schools. The graduation rate for athletes now ranges from almost nil at some schools to 100% for Duke basketball players, every one of whom, since 1975, has earned a degree.

What are the perils in this plan? None that are insurmountable. To prevent somebody from goofing off during his playing years, knowing that his education would be paid for indefinitely, I propose that an athlete must have studied hard enough to have remained academically eligible during his athletic career. And what if a fellow takes a shine to the halls of academia and prolongs his education deliberately? Highly unlikely. Our scholar still has to make a living after his eligibility runs out, and therefore has every reason to hustle toward his degree and a better job.

Will universities respond to the new pact by automatically bestowing degrees upon athletes who have completed their tenure on the field or the court? Again, not likely. Even schools that are not known for academic excellence would be loath to further cheapen their reputations and diminish the value of their degrees by dispensing them like candy.

On a small scale, a consortium of 31 colleges and universities organized by Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, has already agreed to finance former scholarship athletes who wish to return to the campus to earn their degrees. In exchange the athletes participate in outreach programs promoting education. The program is in its infancy, and not all of the schools play Division I basketball or football, but the addition last month of Penn State to the group represents an enormous vote of confidence.

Why should universities finance the education of former athletes? Simple, says Lapchick. As the public becomes more aware of scandals and abuses in college sports, schools become increasingly sensitive about their credibility. According to Lapchick, the schools in the Northeastern consortium "saw a problem and wanted to be part of the solution." The NCAA should endorse those good intentions by making open-ended scholarships mandatory.