When a student-athlete is recruited, athletics programs make a promise that they will act in the best interest of the student-athlete: “If you come here, we will look out for you. We will set you up for a successful life.”
Historically, athletics departments fulfilled this promise by helping student-athletes stay eligible and graduate with their college degree. Since far fewer people attended college years ago, simply obtaining a college degree was essentially a ticket to a successful life.
Graduation is still very important today, but helping a student-athlete reach graduation is no longer enough to prepare them for future success. The New York Fed estimates that almost half of all recent college graduates start their careers working in lower-paying jobs that do not require a college degree. Underemployed recent graduates earn less than ever before and have a difficult time recovering after a slow start to their careers. The rate of underemployment varies by major, and first-generation college graduates are at particular risk of being underemployed.
Student-athletes are increasingly becoming aware of these challenges and want more help obtaining good jobs. In a 2016 survey conducted by the NCAA, the most desired additional programming student-athletes wanted from athletics departments was help with academics and for preparing to get a job after college. Additional studies like the one from Kidd et al. (2018) elaborate on how modern student-athletes feel career development opportunities are limited, which has a direct negative impact on the success of their transition away from sport participation.
Many young alumni, after a few years of hindsight, often wish that their athletics departments better positioned them for the realities of starting their postgraduate careers (ask them for feedback about this). Student-athletes certainly possess important personal characteristics that are very valuable to employers, but in the modern era of youth and college sports they can also encounter friction that holds them back from starting their careers on the right foot.
From a young age, many student-athletes develop strong personal identities that are exclusively tied to sports – in part due to the increasingly professionalized youth sports environment – which can cause student-athletes to resist the reality of preparing for a future non-sports career. Also, balancing a busy year-round schedule does not leave a surplus of time for student-athletes to explore new interests that can stoke career passions. In addition, the historical emphasis of NCAA rules has been to encourage eligibility and graduation. Such an emphasis has led to higher graduation rates and has unquestionably been a good thing, but perhaps has also caused schools to overlook employment outcomes. Lastly, the career launch challenge is compounded for student-athletes as entry-level hiring positions increasingly (and paradoxically) ask for previous experience.
Accordingly, to deliver on our recruiting promises, modern athletics departments are making more serious investments to help student-athletes launch into fulfilling careers. In-depth programs have been developed at Michigan, Kentucky, Temple , Arkansas State, and several others. The NCAA also created its own solution called “NCAA After the Game” to match graduating student-athletes with employers.
Perhaps sensing an increasing need, a number of start-ups are emerging to help student-athletes launch their careers. For example, one start-up called NextPlay is looking to partner with athletics departments to jump-start career success programming as they did for Duke. Other companies like InXAthlete and NexGoal offer career matching services for student-athletes.
At UC Davis, we developed the comprehensive Aggie EVO System (short for “evolution system”) as our modern approach to preparing student-athletes for postgraduate success. Designed and led by Dr. Mike Lorenzen (Senior Associate AD for Student-Athlete Outcomes), Aggie EVO is a mandatory professional development program for all student-athletes that builds experience, professional opportunities, and networks starting immediately in the freshman year. Sometimes teams use countable practice hours to help student-athletes complete their EVO requirements and, in some cases, coaches receive bonuses when team EVO requirements are met. As Aggie EVO matures, our intent is to integrate career development into team activities to the same full extent as strength and conditioning or sports medicine. Our ambitious goal is to ensure that every UC Davis student-athlete is fully prepared to compete as a top candidate for the job or graduate school option of their choice.
We are also finding the Aggie EVO System to be a strategic driver of fundraising that is especially effective in helping us reach donors who are in the early or middle stages of their careers. Participation in informational interviews with student-athletes and career talks with teams engages these younger supporters more effectively than traditional athletics fundraising methods such as priority seating.
Since universities differ in many significant ways, the best approach for helping student-athletes launch into postgraduate opportunities is likely to vary between athletics departments. However, no matter the available resources or whether a school is public or private, there are a few cost-free steps that all athletics departments can take to increase the employability of their student-athlete graduates.
First, athletics departments should stop referring to graduation as the primary academic goal. Common athletics department value statements (e.g., “we seek to compete for championships and graduate our student-athletes”) could be revised to reflect a modern standard of student success – a positive career launch upon graduation, not just attaining graduation. Along similar lines, when communicating about the commitment to student-athlete education and welfare, athletics leaders can move beyond the regularly-used phrase “enhancing the student-athlete experience.” A positive experience is important, but ensuring a positive career outcome should be a higher priority. Talking about student-athlete “outcomes”, in addition to “experience”, helps athletics departments to be oriented accordingly.
Additionally, athletics departments can track the rate at which student-athletes from each team launch successfully into a good job or graduate school. One way of doing this is to ask coaches to be familiar with and report what their graduating seniors will do for their next step. Involving coaches when possible also helps to significantly increase the cultural importance of career launch within the athletics department overall.
Lastly, to help student-athletes who are nearing graduation, athletics departments can consider working with an emerging group of “last mile” training programs, which are private companies that help increase the skills and marketability of college seniors or recent graduates. Firms like Avenica and Revature work with qualified candidates at no upfront cost to build their skills and place them into good jobs.
Even as student-athlete graduation rates climb higher than ever, it is becoming more commonly acknowledged that just graduating is no longer an assurance of career success for modern student-athletes. Athletics departments must continue to help our student-athletes graduate with real opportunities, not just degrees.