Are Academic Support Centers Worth the Investment? | Athletic Business

Are Academic Support Centers Worth the Investment?

Details emerged this week on the University of Wisconsin's "Athletic Village," a three-story, $77 million annex to the north end of Camp Randall Stadium to be completed in three phases by 2014. The 38,000-square-foot academic and strength training center will house (among other things) offices, study rooms, an auditorium, a library and a computer lab. It's a place, as the Wisconsin State Journal put it, "where student-athletes can study and train together."

That's a notion that gives Kutztown University professor Jason Lanter pause. As president of The Drake Group, a faculty-led watchdog organization focused on fostering academic integrity within college athletics, Lanter points to NCAA Bylaw 1.3.1, which states, "A basic purpose of the NCAA is to maintain intercollegiate athletics as an integral part of the educational program and the athlete as an integral part of the student body." Says Lanter, "I have to wonder how athletes are maintained in an educational program and as an integral part of the student body when many of their specific services - residence halls, workout centers, academic support centers - are provided for their use only. Many times, these academic support centers are not a part of the traditional academic corridor but separated in the athletic wing. So, how can athletes be an integral part of the educational opportunities and the student body when they are geographically isolated from the rest of campus?"

Construction of academic support centers for student-athletes has become standard procedure on campuses nationwide, and several projects have been introduced in recent weeks. On Jan. 24, the University of Nebraska at Omaha athletic department announced a lead gift toward an on-campus Academic Excellence Center. That same day, Lindenwood University in Missouri announced a $280,000 gift to help fund completion of a 43,000-square-foot student-athlete center, including an academic support center. Both schools cited their respective transitions to higher levels of NCAA competition for the upgrades.

"Why are these centers needed for transition to a new level of NCAA competition?" Lanter asks. "Was there something wrong with the academic services provided to the athletes at these colleges prior to this transition period? If not, then why is the change needed? It would seem to make more sense to pump the funding into these campus-wide academic support services if nothing was wrong."

Lanter recognizes the role of such facilities as recruiting tools, a means to "show concern for the academic welfare of athletes." But, he adds, "we have to wonder how much these athletic departments are truly vested in the educational opportunities for college athletes or simply focused on maintaining eligibility. Do these centers foster an atmosphere where academically underprepared college athletes struggle to maintain a proper balance between education and athletics?"

This issue is personal for Lanter, who first began to question the education student-athletes were receiving during his grad school days as a student advisor. "I do not know of any evidence of improved academic performance after the construction of such academic centers," he says. "With that said, the annual APR [NCAA Academic Progress Rate] report typically highlights programs and universities that suffer from lack of funding for services like this, and these under-funded schools have argued that the construction of such centers, together with the APR, have further widened the gap between the haves and have-nots in intercollegiate athletics."

"Is there specific evidence that a new recreation center or new university center improves student performance?" asks Joseph Luckey, director of athletic academic services at the University of Memphis and president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics. "We understand the recruiting nature of the athletic world, but that exists on campuses in general as new facilities are being built. Like facilities on campus, we can point to student recruiting, retention and engagement as direct evidence of the positives of the construction. To start, coaches may be able to recruit a better student and athlete due to the newer facility, which allows the overall academic performance of the student-athletes to increase. I see the construction of the new facilities as a statement that our profession has made a positive impact on campuses - we are providing quality services to our students and we need facilities created or improved in order to accommodate the increased programming. We have improved university retention and graduation rates."

As one of the established "haves" in Lanter's landscape, the University of Connecticut announced in January that it had received an anonymous donation toward a 70,000-square-foot UConn Basketball Student-Athlete Development Center. The facility, which will include areas for academic support among its practice gyms, locker rooms and coaches offices, is expected to cost $30 million, funded entirely through donations.

"Many times, funding comes from private donations or boosters that earmark the money specifically for athletics or a project of this nature," Lanter says. "This occurs at times when many academic buildings on many campuses need upgrades and maintenance to remain fully functional for the entire campus, and not just an elite subpopulation of the campus."

Wisconsin undergraduates will no doubt be impressed one way or another when they pass the so-called Athletic Villiage on their way to Camp Randall's north end-zone student sections in coming years. Says Lanter, "It would be great if campus administrators would accept funding like this but include a clause that a majority of the funding would be earmarked for general academic renovations, so that the entire campus can benefit from the generosity of the donor."

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