Listen Up, Athletes – Earning Your College Degree is Important!

With March Madness on everyone’s mind, it’s a good time to look at why athletes should graduate

By Greg Scott Neuman
Posted 2012

College Degree Value
College Degree Value

Every year, thousands of freshmen enter college as student athletes. Many are on scholarships, counting on athletic ability to help pay for school. Almost all have dreams of becoming sports professionals. In fact, a University of Nebraska/NCAA study found that 60% viewed themselves “more as athletes than students”.

So, if you have an athletic scholarship, a love of sports, and a goal of going pro, why should you bother with earning a college degree? As it turns out, there are several good reasons.

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Less Then 1%

In a 2011 interview with late-night talk show host David Letterman, former NBA all-star Charles Barkley noted the primary reason why a college degree is important for athletes. “You’re talking about young kids who all think they’re going to go to the pros and a very tiny percent — less than 1% — [will],” he said. “See, I want the kids that are not going to be loaded to graduate.”

Just as most high school athletes don’t make it into college sports, most college athletes will not have the opportunity to turn pro. Professional sports are as competitive as it gets, and only the very top performers advance to that level. This means that you can be a very good college athlete and still not make it to the pros.

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Having a degree means that if you don’t turn pro, you still have a valuable skill set to fall back on. And if you want to remain in the field of athletics, there are plenty of degrees that allow you to take on critical support roles. A sports management degree can get you started as an agent, while an athletic training degree can help you land a sports medicine position. There are a variety of other athletics-oriented degree programs as well.


Athletes hate discussing it, but the threat of injury is an ever-present reality in sports. So even if you do manage to advance to the professional level, there is a very real possibility that your career will be cut short by a broken bone or torn hamstring. It’s a fact that every serious athlete should face head-on and prepare for.

Once again, having a college degree is your safety net. An injury may end your basketball career, but it is unlikely to prevent you from making good use of a business finance degree or an MBA. Some professional athletes whose injuries force them to retire early put their knowledge to good use as coaches. A health and physical education degree can be a big help if that’s the sort of career you’d like to fall back on.

Good News from the NCAA

The NCAA’s 2011 report on college graduation rates brought some good news. It measured both a one-year snapshot group (student athletes who started college in 2004-2005) and a four-class average (student athletes who started college between 2001 and 2004). The former had a graduation rate of 82%, while the latter managed 80%. The previous record in both groups had been 79%, so 2011 marked a significant improvement.

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Walter Harrison, the University of Hartford president and chair of the NCAA’s committee on academic performance, told the Associated Press (AP) that "These numbers are real, important indicators of the work we’ve done. I think about these results and I don’t see percentage points as much as I do real students, going off to lead successful lives with better chances than before we began this work."

It’s great that the NCAA, educational institutions, parents and coaches are all taking graduation rates more seriously. But ultimately it is up to student athletes to realize how important earning a degree is and put forth the effort to do so. Because in the end, that’s who is going to benefit the most from getting a good education.

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