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University of Arizona athletes graduating at highest rate since 2004, but remain lowest in state

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The University of Arizona ranks last in the state and the Pac-12 Conference in graduation success rate for student athletes. (Photo by Justin Sayers/Arizona Sonora News)

Former University of Arizona football player Matt Scott, who was at Arizona from 2008-2012, will be remembered as one of the most-productive quarterbacks in school history.

But 6 1/2 years since he first arrived at the university, Scott is still without a degree, a circumstance that isn’t unfamiliar to former Arizona student athletes.

The graduation success rate for student athletes at the University of Arizona is 75 percent, which is lowest in the state behind Northern Arizona University (85 percent) and Arizona State University (82 percent), according to new data released by the NCAA in late October. While Arizona’s rate grew for the eighth time in nine years, it’s still the lowest in the Pac-12 Conference.

The graduation success rate measures the proportion of first-year, full-time students who entered a school on scholarship and graduated from that institution within six years, adjusting for players who transferred to and from a university. This year’s data looked at players who entered their universities between the 2003-2004 and 2006-2007 school years.

Scott’s plight should change by January, assuming he can take a class during the winter session. He has one remaining GenEd to earn a degree in family studies and human development.

He said it wasn’t hard for a lot of athletes to graduate in four or less years as long as you knew what you wanted to do. But in his case, he went from physiology to communication to general studies before settling on family studies and human development.

“For me, coming in I didn’t really have a plan of what I wanted to do,” Scott said. “I ended up taking classes that I ended up not needing.”

Scott, who still ranks in the top-10 in Arizona history in passing yards, passing touchdowns and completion percentage, spent parts of the last two seasons with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals. He just signed a contract with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League and is currently working out in Phoenix before he reports in April.

But he always knew he’d come back and finish his degree.

“I went to Arizona for 4 1/2 years,” Scott said. “I didn’t want to go through all that time with nothing to show for it.”

With the graduation success rate of the entire NCAA going up two percentage points to 84 percent, it now sits at its highest rate ever. The three schools in Arizona have seen a similar upward trend and hope current programming and resources will help them continue on that path.

A Working Formula

Arizona State and Northern Arizona have ranked ahead of Arizona in graduation success rates for student athletes since 2009. This year, Arizona State’s rate grew for the eighth time in the last 10 years, while Northern Arizona’s remained at least tied for the highest in the state for the fourth year in a row.

Both Arizona State and Northern Arizona said their student athletes have been able to find success by mixing NCAA requirements with university requirements.

As part of requirements set forth by the NCAA, freshmen have to complete a minimum of 24 units in their first year with a minimum 1.8 GPA. Every year after that, they have to complete a minimum of 18 units between the two terms. Sophomores have to have a minimum GPA of 1.9, while juniors and seniors have to maintain at least a 2.0 GPA.

At Northern Arizona, student athletes also have to adhere to the Lumberjack Academics policy, according to Pam Lowie, assistant athletics director for Northern Arizona University Athletics. Under the policy, which is GPA and class dependent, student athletes have to attend study hall and mentor meetings, among other tasks.

(Lowie, who is also director of academic services, said she did not have time for a phone interview and answered questions via email.)

“We focus on providing outstanding programming and resources for student athletes in all phases of their academic journey while a part of the Lumberjack family,” she wrote.

Lowie credits Northern Arizona president Rita Cheng and vice president of intercollegiate athletics Lisa Campos and their predecessors for prioritizing academic success among the student athletes. She said the work of the higher-ups has had an effect on the university’s head and assistant coaches, who recruit student athletes based on their success both on the field and in the classroom.

At Arizona State, student athletes have to follow requirements set forth by the academic colleges or departments they’re enrolled in, said senior associate athletic director Jean Boyd.

“Each of those colleges have criteria to remain in good academic standing,” he said. “Those requirements are above and beyond NCAA requirements.”

Arizona State emphasizes the Sun Devils Athletic Way, which challenges student athletes by emphasizing history, tradition and culture, Boyd said.

The mantra is instilled in student athletes through the Championship Life program, which promotes succeeding both in sports and in life after sports. It starts in the summer before incoming student athletes’ initial years.

“The Championship Life is one way by which we empower student athletes to have an understanding of who they are as a human being and what their values are,” he said.

And the approach has been working. Since 2000, Arizona State ranks second in the conference in most Academic All-Americans, Academic Scholar Athletes of the Year and post-graduate scholarship winners, Boyd said.

“If you’re coming to be a part of the Sun Devil family, you’re going to give your best in everything you do,” he said. “We don’t accept mediocrity.”

Down South

Arizona’s graduation success rate ranks tied for 265th out of 347 Division 1 institutions along with Central Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, University of Alabama at Birmingham, University of Texas at El Paso, and University of Texas, Pan American.

“Part of the issue is the data is so old, so when you’re talking about a six-year graduation rate, you’re talking about students that were freshmen here 10 years ago,” said Jennifer Mewes, assistant director of internal operations, who has worked in the Arizona Athletic Department since 1993.

She said the department has grown exponentially in the last 20 years and now has a support system in place that can provide individualized support for its roughly 500 student athletes. There are more resources available for academics as opposed to 10 years ago, she said.

“I think part of it is our programming and focus effort to help students be successful, we haven’t caught up to where we’re at now,” Mewes said.

Another reason for the low numbers is coaching turnover, Mewes said. The cohort is so small that every time a coach leaves and players transfer in bad academic standing, it can drastically affect the graduation success rate.

Only three coaches at Arizona — Mike Candrea (softball), Dave Rubio (women’s volleyball) and Bill Ryden (women’s gymnastics) — have been with the university since 2000. In comparison, Arizona State has four and Northern Arizona, which sponsors half as many sports as its in state-rivals, has three.

Matt Scott, who played under both Mike Stoops and Rich Rodriguez, said coaching definitely has an effect on academics. The latter was more strict in terms of academics, he said.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of stress on academics prior to Rodriguez being named the coach,” he said. “I think he took it to a whole new level when he came in.”

The low numbers could also have something to do with the diversity of student athletes’ majors, said assistant athletic director John Mosbach.

Through the C.A.T.S. Academics program, the athletic department helps student athletes focus on their interests outside of sports and parlay those interests into their studies, he said. Student athletes are represented in nearly every major on campus.

“We encourage students to explore areas that they are interested in,” said Mosbach, who directs the program. “We talk a good amount about not clustering and not funneling students into a particular major.”

The most popular major is general studies, where student athletes are spread out evenly among the seven tracks. Other popular majors are psychology, pre-business and physiology.

In addition, student athletes at Arizona have to follow university requirements as well, Mosbach said. To remain off probation at the university, students have to maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA or they could face expulsion.

All the athletic and academic requirements could be difficult for some student athletes, Mosbach said, but most manage.

David Roberts, who played football at Arizona from 2007-11, is now an account manager at Boeing in Seattle.

Roberts, 25, majored in aeronautical engineering and graduated in May 2012. When he declared his major, he was at first questioned for pursuing such a hard major, but was never discouraged.

“No one ever stopped me from doing engineering,” he said.

Balancing a difficult major and participation in a high visibility sport wasn’t easy, Roberts said. For example, the summer after his redshirt freshman year, he was taking two core physics classes and rehabbing from a torn meniscus.

However, he credits the university for helping him find equilibrium.

“I don’t how it is at other universities, but I’ve been told the way University of Arizona views its athletes is different than the norm,” he said. “There’s a hunger to want to get it right at the University of Arizona.”

Roberts also praised the Pac-12 Conference, which announced a number of sweeping reforms in late October, for making that balancing act a little easier.

Reforms include guaranteed four-year scholarships, allowing students who leave before graduation to return to use their remaining educational expenses, and medical expenses up to four years after graduation for student athletes who have retired due to injury.

Previously scholarships for student athletes were one-year renewable and could be rescinded by the coaching staff, Roberts said. Now they are guaranteed as long you meet academic requirements.

“Could you imagine at the end of the season, and you’re trying to do finals, and you’re trying to prepare for games, and you’re worried about whether or not you’re going to be here next year?” Roberts said. “Do you go out and study or do you go and lift weights?”

Roberts hopes that his success will encourage other student athletes to pursue a difficult major.

“If you really want something bad enough, your mind and your body finds a way to make it happen,” he said.

Careers Outside of Sports

Representatives from the three universities also said their schools’ programs help prepare student athletes for life after college.

The Arizona Athletic Department offers student athlete development resources through its C.A.T.S. Life Skills program. The program is broken down into three sections — career development, personal development and professional development, said program director Becky Bell. It was modified about 10 years ago based on a survey sent out to former student athletes asking what they struggled with after graduation.

Career development includes resume workshops, mock interviews and help with graduate school applications; personal development includes help with stress and time management and nutrition; and professional development helps connects student athletes with leadership opportunities, Bell said.

The program began in the 1990s under the direction of former athletic director Cedric Dempsey and deputy athletic director Rocky LaRose. Dempsey, who left Arizona in 1994 to become executive director of the NCAA, made providing life skills programs for student athletes a requirement at NCAA institutions.

“Arizona is really recognized as the model program in the country,” said Bell, noting the university won one of the inaugural CHAMPS Program of Excellence awards in 1997.

Even though the NCAA mandates them, life skills programs differ from university to university, Bell said.

At Northern Arizona, student athletes are directed to the services and resources offered through the school for all students, according to Pam Lowie.

“Not all student athletes will go on to play professional sports — in fact only a small percentage do — and even if they do they need to have skills to success,” she wrote. “We want to prepare our student athletes for life after intercollegiate athletes and help them gain the tools necessary to become the future leaders in many different fields.”

At Arizona State, Jean Boyd is in charge of organizing student athlete development programs, which include academic services, career development and athletic training. He said it’s important to provide non-academic life skills because having a degree is no longer enough to get a job.

“Anything that serves the student athlete off the playing field, outside of the pool, off the court, off the track, essentially reports up to me,” Boyd said. “What we’re really trying to do is create a holistic approach. … We’re working very closely together to ensure that student athletes are developing physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally and academically.”

Life after college is a transition for some student athletes more than others, Bell said, noting that student athletes who participated in the life skills program are more prepared because they know what to expect more than others.

While none of the programs are mandatory, the majority of the 500 student athletes at Arizona are involved in at least some way, shape or form, she said.

“The ones that are more prepared and that have really tried to plan out their academic careers as well as their professional careers will be in a better position to (enter the workforce),” she said.

One of the struggles that former student athletes have after graduation is finding a professional career outside of sports, said Darien McKinley, a former Arizona track and field athlete who graduated in May.

McKinley, 22, who started as a journalism major but switched to general studies with an emphasis in sports management, always broke his potential career into two options: journalist or professional athlete. After graduation, he took a part-time job as a gym instructor at the Boys & Girls Club in Peoria, where he now works.

After a lot of soul searching, he decided in June that he wasn’t really interested in journalism. A month later he decided to pursue a job as a personal trainer, a career he said he never really thought about while he was a student. He hopes to apply for his certification by February.

“I think there’s a job out there for everybody, you just got to have the hard work and dedication to find it,” McKinley said.

Bell said that there is no data on the employment of former student athletes. The department attempted to track it, but those who attended graduate school or took time off before entering the work force skewed the numbers.

Getting Their Numbers Up

While Arizona State and Northern Arizona are confident their graduation success rates will remain high, members of the Arizona Athletic Department are optimistic that their numbers will reach those of their fellow state universities.

Members of the athletic department point to the hiring of athletic director Greg Byrne in 2010 as a big turning point for the university.

John Mosbach, who joined Arizona Athletics in August after eight years in the athletic department at the University of Southern California, said the number one pillar in Byrne’s core principles for the athletic department is graduating student athletes.

Jennifer Mewes said previous athletic directors, like Jim Livengood, placed a lot of emphasis on academics. But Byrne has emphasized some particular things a little more, like implementing consequences for student athletes based on class attendance. If a student athlete misses too many classes, it affects their playing time, Matt Scott said.

One of the problems nationwide is the dumb jock stereotype, which Byrne has attempted to break by highlighting the success of student athletes. At halftime of a basketball game against Gonzaga, the athletic department honored 220 athletes who achieved a grade point average of 3.0 or higher during the 2013-14 school year, or slightly less than half.

“The benchmark we would always like to hit moving forward is at least 50 percent of our student-athlete population has 3.0 or higher,” Mosbach said.

While the graduation success rate numbers of Byrne’s first year at the university won’t show up until 2020, Mosbach can point to the rising average GPA rates as evidence of the department’s success. Student athletes have raised their averages from 2.74 to 2.83 in the last three years.

If this is any indication for the future of the department, Arizona should continue to increase its graduation success rate, which has risen 14 percentage points in the last five years, Mosbach said.

“I want us to do our part and show you can win national championships and conference championships but also have well- and high-achieving student athletes and good graduation rates,” he said. “You can have the best of both worlds.”

Justin Sayers is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at jsayers@email.arizona.edu.