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Academics for athletes: Iowa universities invest in supporting students

Some aim to boost students' achievement and retention

Feb 21, 2018 at 5:30 am
    Work continues on Gerdin Athletic Learning Center in Iowa City on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

    The term is student-athlete.

    And administrators across this country’s college and university campuses say there’s a reason the word “student” comes first.

    “Our AD Gary Barta always talks about, ‘Win. Graduate. Do it right,’ ” Liz Tovar, University of Iowa associate athletics director for student-athlete academic services, said about Hawkeye Athletics Director Barta’s oft-repeated mantra. “And I think, from a fundamental standpoint, that’s very important. It’s not just important that we say that. It’s important that we follow through with that.”

    Part of that follow-through, according to Tovar, involves providing adequate and accessible space for student-athletes to study, collaborate on coursework, receive tutoring, meet with career and academic counselors, and refuel along the way following grueling practice and performance schedules.

    Thus the university in 2003 debuted a $4.6 million Gerdin Athletic Learning Center on the west side of campus — near its athletics facilities — equipped with a library, tutorial spaces, computer labs and “refueling stations.” The goal at the time was to “fully integrate the athletic and academic development” of its 600-plus student-athletes.

    By the numbers:

    $4.6 million — The cost of the Gerdin Athletic Learning Center when it opened in 2003

    $6.8 million — The amount requested of the Board of Regents in 2016 to upgrade the center

    28,240 square feet — The size, before remodeling, of the three-story center

    $150 million — The amount spent annually by 100-plus major college athletic programs for academic support structures and programs.

    - Source: University of Iowa, New York Times, national reports



    And the UI was not alone. In fact, the New York Times reports all 100-plus major college athletic programs in this country boast some type of academic support structure. National reports indicate Division I programs spend more than $150 million a year on those supports.

    Examples, according to the Times, include Louisiana State University, which spent $5 million on an athletic-academic center; University of Georgia, which erected a $7 million facility; and Temple University, which bolstered its athletic-academic support by 34 percent.

    Programs use them to recruit — while past attention has been focused on training facilities, performance venues, coaches and win-loss records. Without study supports, administrators argue, athletes’ grades slip — risking scholarships and threatening their time on the field or court or mat or pool.

    The NCAA touts the “ultimate goal of the college experience is graduation,” justifying its commitment to researching student-athletes graduation rates and grade-point averages. All colleges and universities are mandated by NCAA legislation and federal law to report student graduation rates, and those with sports must separate out student-athlete statistics.

    The separation allows the NCAA to enforce requirements that student-athletes meet specific academic benchmarks — called “progress-toward-degree requirements” — to compete. In Division I schools — such as the UI and Iowa State University — students must enroll in a specific number of hours, depending on their year, and make a grade-point-average of at least 90 percent of the minimum to graduate in their second year, achieving 100 percent of the minimum GPA by their fourth and fifth year of enrollment.

    At universities with a minimum 2.0 to graduate, for example, student-athletes must earn at least 1.8 in their second year to play.

    For more than two decades, the association has been assessing athlete academic performance nationally, reporting an average Division I student-athlete graduation rate at 87 percent in 2017 — the highest on record and a sharp uptick from 74 percent in 2002.

    When looking at specific sports, all have seen improvement over that same time period, with the most dramatic spikes reported for men’s basketball and football — especially among black athletes.

    The University of Iowa’s overall student-athlete graduation success rate, according to the NCAA’s 2016-17 data, is 90 percent — above the national average and among the best in the Big Ten Conference, topped only by Northwestern University at 97 percent, University of Minnesota at 92 percent and University of Michigan at 91 percent.

    “All 24 of our sports teams that we have here are well above the NCAA threshold in terms of making academic progress,” Tovar said, noting the UI reports above a 3.0 overall grade-point average across all 650 student athletes. “So I think we’re doing quite well from an academic standpoint.”

    ‘A very structured environment’

    And yet UI administrators said burgeoning technology, shifting student demands and needs quickly outdated the Gerdin complex, sending them back to the Board of Regents in 2016 to approve designs and a $6.3 million budget for an athletic learning-center upgrade.

    Both the original construction and updates largely have been financed by gifts from the Solon-based Ann Gerdin family — which gave $5 million in 2002 and another $5 million last year for the renovations. The UI Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, which is self-sustaining, is supplementing costs with its earnings — meaning no taxpayer dollars are being tapped.


    The remodel will build out all three stories of the 28,240-square-foot facility and modernize its study areas to look more like the UI Main Library’s Learning Commons, a 37,000-square-foot space that opened in 2013 and includes 18 group study rooms, desktop and laptop computers, TVs and projectors and multimedia resources, plenty of charging stations, high-speed connectivity and a cafe.

    A revamped Gerdin Athletic Learning Center, on track to open late spring or early summer, likewise will feature collaborative study rooms, lounge space, offices for counseling or advising, all with a “big emphasis on technology,” Tovar said.

    “It’s a 10- or 12-year-old building, and since that building was built, there’s been significant changes in technology,” she said. “So what our student-athletes will see in the new building is enhanced technology features within all of the various tutoring spaces and collaboration spaces and open spaces.”

    The updated center also will feature a “refueling” cafe similar to existing refueling stations, which athletes can tap between practices and classes to grab granola bars or fruit from bins for free. The Hawkeye Café similarly will offer food at no cost, but with a more café-style setup.

    Those features are among the reasons administrators want to closely monitor use of the facility, which is limited to athletes only.

    “It’s not about keeping our students away from the non-student-athlete population,” Tovar said. “But we want to make sure that it’s a very structured environment and that we know who the students are who are utilizing our building.”

    Student-athletes, she said, face different demands — in that they often have more to balance than the average student — practice and competition and traveling, specifically. Because UI practice facilities are on the west side of campus, getting to the library and student union on the east side can be a challenge, according to Tovar.

    “I think one of our goals is not just keeping students on track from an academic standpoint but helping them with time management and organizational skills,” she said.

    “Having a structured environment where they know that they have to come over to study for a certain number of hours or they have to meet with tutor or academic coordinators is really imperative.”

    No student-athlete building

    Iowa State University has a Rod and Connie French Athletic Academic Center located on the second floor of its Hixson-Lied Student Success Center, which was constructed in 2007 in support of academic achievement and student retention for the entire student body. The Hixson-Lied center provides academic counseling, tutoring centers, a resource library, computer labs, study rooms, meeting rooms and classroom spaces.

    The athletic-specific portion of the center helps student-athletes mostly through services such as counseling, tutoring and mentoring — including resume development, interview preparation and job-search help. Student-athletes are not required to use the center, although they are required to meet academic requirements to compete.

    Iowa State has not significantly updated its 40,000-plus-square-foot Hixson-Lied facility over the past decade. But it is in the process of building a 140,000-square-foot, $84 million Student Innovation Center that will include meeting rooms, collaboration spaces, offices, a test kitchen, store, cafe and classrooms. Completion is scheduled for 2020.

    Iowa State’s athlete graduation success rate, as reported by the NCAA, is below Iowa’s, at 84 percent overall. That is in the middle of the pack for the Big 12 Conference, with four schools doing the same or better and five schools reporting lower rates.

    The University of Northern Iowa also doesn’t have an entire academic center dedicated to athletes. Its graduation success rate is 82 percent, which is near the bottom of the Missouri Valley Conference, with just two schools reporting lower rates — Indiana State University at 81 percent and Wichita State University at 80 percent.

    Although graduation success rates were not available for Coe College via the NCAA, a spokesman for the Cedar Rapids-based private school said Coe embraces the association’s student-athlete philosophy, making academics a top priority. Support mechanisms exist for each athletic team on campus, typically involving a “study table or study area” in Stewart Memorial Library where athletes convene a few times a week, according to Coe spokesman Rod Pritchard. Coaches from each sport often monitor the sessions to make sure athletes are “studying effectively and managing their time wisely,” Pritchard said.

    “Coe coaches are truly dedicated to the student-athlete philosophy and work closely with faculty to ensure that students involved in their respective sports are reaching their academic potential,” he said.

    But Coe doesn’t offer separate academic centers for athletes only, as Pritchard said Kohawk student-athletes are “fully integrated into the student body as it relates to courses and other academic activities.

    ... Coe student-athletes — just like all other students — are able to access tutoring and other academic support services as needed in our Learning Commons.”

    ‘A really productive space’

    For years, the University of Iowa has required its first-year student-athletes to log a certain number of study hours at the learning center. But many student-athletes stop coming as often, or at all, in subsequent years, and Tovar said she hopes the renovations and expansions will change that — along with potential changes in how many hours and days it’s open.

    “We wanted to make it a destination point for student-athletes rather than place that they have to come to,” she said.

    On the UI track and field squad in her junior year, Alexis Gay, 20, said she’s looking forward to using the new facility — even though she’s not required to do so. On a premedical track in health and human physiology, Gay conceded she’s a self-proclaimed “nerd.”

    “But I think it’s really helpful,” she said. “There’s an aspect of it that’s somewhat social because you get to see all your friends from different sports in one area. But I actually think it’s a really resourceful place because you have computers and printing stations and people who you can talk to …. It’s a really safe space and a really productive space.”


    Gay made good use of the old center and has frequented the interim space attached in the recreation building. But she noted limited space has been an issue — with students often squatting in hallways, creating more opportunities for socialization and distraction.

    “When we have more space and there’s more structured study areas,” she said. “I think people are going to be a lot more productive.”

    That will help students meet personal goals and coach expectations — which are high, according to Gay.

    “You wouldn’t expect your coaches to be the people that push you most, but it’s actually something that’s talked about a lot in practice,” she said. “They think it’s as important to be a good student as it is to get sleep and eat right and come to practice. They always tell us, ‘You wouldn’t miss a practice, so don’t miss a class.’”

    Some students have said they didn’t perceive a big need to renovate the old space — such as UI sophomore Anthony Chaivez, 19, who does track and field and fulfilled his freshmen study requirements in the former Gerdin space. He praised its separation from the general student population, allowing more control over the noise levels and access to tools such as printers.

    “I felt like everything was there,” he said. “I liked the old one.”

    Rumors of the revamped refueling offerings, however, have him excited for the updated version.

    “I heard there was supposed to be a cafe or something,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s true.”

    It is, of course, and Chaivez said he’s excited to use it — not just for the food but for the good of his grades.

    “When my grades are good, I perform a lot better,” he said. “It’s just one less thing to worry about.”

    ‘They give so much enjoyment’

    That’s the idea, according to Julie Durr, daughter of Russell and Ann Gerdin, who founded Coralville-based trucking and shipping service Heartland Express. The couple has given millions across the UI campus, but Durr said they were moved to support the athletic learning center — funding it almost entirely — because of their belief in the importance of well-rounded athletics programming.

    “We are strong believers in education, as many people know,” she said.

    They also enjoy the fruits of Hawkeye athletics, including the enjoyment they provide the community, the draw they produce for this region and their economic impact. Hawkeye football games, for example, are widely viewed as marquee events in Iowa, bringing to town thousands of fans, who spend money at restaurants and hotels and local shops during their visits.

    “We wanted to support the athletes because they give so much enjoyment to these communities,” Durr said.

    High-academic achievement among athletes supports the Hawkeye brand, in that it keeps students on the field. Durr justified the need to update the athletic learning center by pointing to advancing technology that has made the facility “very old school,” lacking sufficient charging stations and collaboration space.

    When the new center opens later this year, Durr will get to hear about it firsthand from her freshman daughter Josie Durr, on the Hawkeye soccer squad.

    “I just hope it provides a more learning-friendly and study-friendly environment for those kids,” she said.

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