Ohio State football phenom Nick Bosa is expected to be among the first picks in this year’s NFL draft. But his career trajectory is far from typical.
Out of 500,000 student-athletes competing at NCAA and NAIA schools, fewer than 1.5 percent of college football and basketball players make the transition to the pros.
The rest tend to face the same challenges that plague so many of America’s college graduates: mounting debt, the specter of underemployment and a labor market that seems to be shifting out from under them. But student-athletes are beating the odds. After graduation, they are more likely than their non-athlete peers to be employed full-time and engaged in the workplace. For these reasons, college career counselors can learn a lot about postgraduate success from from colleges’ athletics departments.
At their best, college athletics inculcate exactly the leadership, interpersonal and teamwork skills that employers are asking for. Some 55 percent of women in top-level executive positions at the country’s largest companies are former college athletes.
Career outcomes for college athletes also reflect a growing recognition among athletics departments that degree completion is necessary, but often insufficient, for postgraduate success. Because while most student-athletes receive scholarships, only a small fraction receive so-called “full rides.”
Even football and basketball players who receive significant scholarship support sometimes graduate with loan debt. Athletes in other sports, and at non-FBS schools, can graduate with larger financial burdens.
Athletics departments are taking action. The University of Kentucky has launched a “Student-Athlete Experience Division” that aims to equip student-athletes “with the requisite professional skills and help … them identify and pursue internship and work opportunities.”
Temple Athletics announced a new career services program this fall called Verified that, among other benefits, provides participants with a “professional business kit containing a recognition pin, padfolio, business card holder and pen which signifies to potential employers that you are one of our professional best.”
Ohio State University launched a summer internship program for student-athletes, the University of Michigan invests heavily in student-athlete career development, and Arkansas State University created a robust job placement program that matches student-athletes with alumni mentors.
The University of California at Davis developed its Aggie EVO System to prepare student-athletes for postgraduate success. A mandatory professional development program for all student-athletes, the EVO System (short for “evolution system”) builds job-seeking skills, creates professional opportunities and enhances networks for UC Davis athletes.
As a bonus, UC Davis has found that connecting student-athletes with employment can also help drive advancement efforts for school athletics.
Previously uninvolved alumni find themselves participating in informational interviews with student-athletes and speaking with teams about their career trajectories.
These engagements disproportionately attract younger alumni who are difficult to reach using traditional athletics fundraising approaches, such as donor seating programs at football and basketball games.
As growing numbers of institutions make investments to improve employment outcomes for their graduates, they would be well-served to heed five lessons learned from athletic departments beating the odds on postgraduate outcomes.
1. Savvy athletics departments are no longer referring to graduation as the primary academic goal. They are updating traditional value statements (e.g., “We will win championships and graduate our student-athletes”) to reflect an emphasis on successful career launch rather than just degree completion.
2. Successful departments track whether student-athletes from each team launch successfully into good jobs or graduate school. Increasingly, schools are expecting coaches to be involved in preparing their graduates to launch, which helps emphasize the importance of career development in the culture of athletics programs.
3. Athletics departments embrace start-ups and external resources that supplement school efforts to help student-athletes launch careers. Firms such as AthletesToCareers and NexGoal offer career matching services for student-athletes. NextPlay partners with athletics departments like the one at Duke to offer career success programming tailored to student-athletes. Finally, the NCAA has developed its own resource called “NCAA After the Game” to help match graduating student-athletes with job opportunities.
4. To provide immediate assistance to this year’s seniors, athletics departments are considering collaborations with an emerging number of Last-Mile Training programs that bridge the gap to entry-level employment through digital-skills training.
5. Athletics departments are listening to, and designing around, the aspirations of student-athletes who are increasingly attuned to the modern challenges of college affordability and employability.
In a 2016 survey conducted by the NCAA, student-athletes were asked what additional topics coaches and administrators should talk about more frequently. Across divisions and gender, the most requested topics were related to “academic success and especially preparing to get a job after college.”
Like the broader community of postsecondary practitioners and leaders, athletic directors are realizing that even as graduation rates reach record levels, degree completion no longer assures career success.
And while far from perfect, their experiences may present a model for the rest of higher education to help students finish college with real career opportunities, not just degrees.
This story about college sports and careers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Kevin Blue is director of athletics at the University of California at Davis, and was previously senior associate athletics director for external relations at Stanford University.