Integrating athletes, other students leads to better academic performance

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
A study conducted by three instructors from the Air Force Academy and an assistant professor of finance at the University of Nebraska-Omaha found that making student athletes part of a closely knit student body helps them keep up with other students academically.

The study, "Minding the Terrazzo Gap between Athletes and Nonathletes: Representativeness, Integration, and Academic Performance at the U.S. Air Force Academy," was published in the Journal of Sports Economics in April. Its authors are Lt. Cols. Brian Payne, John Martin, and Jeffrey Merrell and Dr. Jeffery Bredthauer.

The impetus for the study was a 2010 report from the College Sports Project that showed student-athletes underperform other students across 84 Division III schools. Both the CSP report and the Academy's study define underperformance as the difference between the predicted average GPA for a group and the group's actual average GPA.

One challenge for the study was to compare intercollegiate athletes' performance to an expectation. A principal measure authors used was the Academic Composite Score, or ACACOMP, which includes cadets' high school GPA, class rank and quality of high school attended.

Based on ACACOMP scores, the authors predicted a GPA gap of 0.20 between intercollegiate athletes and non-intercollegiate athletes in the 2013-2016 graduating classes. They found the actual GPA gap to be 0.21, meaning the intercollegiate athletes performed almost exactly as the ACACOMP model predicted.

But because the authors expected someone might challenge the ACACOMP model, they devised an alternate measuring tool based on a cadet's intercollegiate athlete status, ACT scores, foreign language proficiency, demographic factors and whether the cadet attended a preparatory school. They came to similar results using this second model: The report states, "... being an IC (intercollegiate athlete) is almost universally not associated with a lower cumulative or core GPA."

"The integration of athletes into the overall academic and collegiate experience plays an important role in how athletes perform academically," Merrell said. "When they are segregated, this is a factor in lack of academic performance."

Air Force Academy cadets face constraints that students at other universities don't, Merrell said. They take a demanding core curriculum of 32 classes, in addition to any major-specific classes, and they must complete their education within eight semesters. In addition, they must complete other graduation requirements, such as military training and airmanship, during the summer, leaving them with only three weeks off. Both squadron assignments and classroom assignments are random, so intercollegiate athletes are interspersed among the larger cadet population.

"The conclusion was impactful and insightful to schools looking to incorporate athletes into their school more," Merrell said. "It showed that they were on to something."

While teaching at the University of Nebraska's main campus, Bredthauer said he observed that athletes associated with high-visibility sports like football and men's basketball typically stayed within their athletic social groups and systematically underperformed in the classroom. In contrast, athletes who were less driven by athletic social groups performed better academically.

"Clearly this is merely observational, but I think it's analogous to what we found at the Air Force Academy," he said. "Those students who are better integrated into the academic environment of college life are better able to perform as expected, rather than underperform because of constant distraction from the task at hand. Social groups can have a large impact on focus at school."

Bredthauer said integration is the key takeaway for civilian schools looking to replicate the Academy's results.

"If schools can create an environment where student athletes can avoid being cloistered in their myopic world of athletics ... they can go a long way toward integrating those students into the broader student body population," he said.