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Big Sports Programs Step Up Hiring to Help Marginal Students

As my cover story in this week’s Chronicle illustrates, major-college athletics programs are investing more time and money to help players who have serious reading, writing, and learning problems.

While some may question the cost—and whether colleges have lowered their academic standards by moving such low-functioning students through the system—others defend the spending, saying that specialized academic advisers have helped athletes and could help other students, too.

Over the past year, nearly one in five big-time athletic departments has created a new learning-specialist position to work with at-risk athletes, according to a recent national survey of academic advisers. Baylor, Maryland, Missouri, Purdue, and UCLA are but a few of the 23 Football Bowl Subdivision programs that have added a learning specialist in that time (see the full list here).

There are approximately 150 learning specialists in the FBS, according to the survey of academic advisers, which was done last month by Bradley R.H. Bethel, a reading and writing specialist in the athletic department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And while there are still far more academic advisers (roughly 740 at FBS programs), jobs for learning specialists are growing much faster, he found.

“All these student-athletes are coming to campus who are really underprepared, which is why the need for learning specialists has arisen,” says Bethel, who got responses from 53 of 120 FBS programs.

This week, at the annual meeting of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics, Bethel will present recommendations for a new set of professional standards for learning specialists, whose job descriptions can vary greatly. Most are trained to teach basic reading and writing skills and to work with students who have learning disabilities and other academic deficiencies. But Bethel’s goal is to help define the profession more clearly so he and his colleagues across the country understand what is expected of them.

For good or ill, Bethel says, our society puts a high value on sports—and because colleges play to win, they are accepting students who might not otherwise make it into their institutions. Bethel sees that as an opportunity, both for those students and for the learning specialists who help them.

“There is this idea that if someone didn’t succeed in high school, they’re not going to succeed in college,” he says. And just because athletes lack particular skills doesn’t mean they are incapable of learning them. “The vast majority of these students are not intellectually disabled and are as capable of learning as anyone else.”

If athletics programs can help those students succeed, Bethel wonders, does that start to change admissions in general? “Then do colleges and universities have to start saying, ‘We should develop this kind of support to non-student-athletes and open our admission to more students and support them?’”

That might be a challenging proposition in an era of state-budget austerity. But Bethel is optimistic.

“We’ve given this opportunity to athletes,” he says, “but if it works, I hope that it can be extended beyond student-athletes.”

(Photo by Lance Murphey for The Chronicle)

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