Athletics: Core to the Community College Mission or Not?

What is vital?

July 30, 2018

The college graduation season always coincides with college baseball championship season. As professionals, we are the sum of our lived experiences, our formal education and lessons from the field, colleagues, and mentors. As a non-athlete who grew up in a family of athletes, my personal experiences gave me a limited lens of the impact of athletics on academics. All of my six siblings played sports in high school, but our family almost never attended their games. The focus in our immigrant family was on academics. Plus, with our parents working multiple jobs each, going to my siblings’ games was more of a suburban, middle-class fantasy lifestyle that I only experienced watching television. Culturally, sports were considered pastimes for boys and men. (At age 36, I finally learned how to ride a bicycle because I set that as a personal goal to achieve and because I wanted to enjoy biking as a leisure activity with my children).

From a college access perspective, I knew that high athletic achievement lowers the cost of college for students and even makes college possible for many underserved and minority students. From the existing research on retention, I also knew that some of these student athletes may earn access into college but struggle to persist through to graduation. Earlier in my career, I used to discourage students and friends from pursuing athletics, partly because of the low probability that they will ever make it big.  I have learned better. Over the last few years, at two separate institutions, I have gotten to see first-hand the transformative impact of athletics on our students’ academic achievement, citizenship, and their development as leaders and role models. I have become a strong supporter of college athletics and the cadre of campus-based leaders who support them. I have also learned to appreciate the very crucial role that a great Athletic Director plays in the culture of the athletics program.

In my travels in public schools and out-of-school youth programs, I often meet students—mostly low-income or minorities—who aspire to be the next big athlete on the big screen. My pitch to them has evolved from asking them to have a back-up plan to sharing with them that most athletes get discovered in college, so their academic performance matters because that is what ultimately will open the doors for them and keep them playing their beloved sport. They may not know with precision how unlikely they are to become the next big super star, but they know. So, why crush their spirit is my rationale. Indeed, at Cumberland County College, we have a few alumni who have made it big in Major League Baseball as well as the minor leagues.

The relationship between sports and higher education is a complex one. Sports can be exorbitantly costly line items that alumni and institutional tradition make nearly impossible to remove, even when the costs outweigh the benefits (benefits can be measured in multiple ways that include non-monetary indicators). However, at the community college level, most institutions run their teams—if they have them—on shoestring budgets. When faced with the need to cut back, athletics are generally identified as expenditures that are less core to our mission compared to others. To those who espouse that view, as I did at one time, I would argue that it is not that simple. Athletics, when managed well, can become a vehicle for dismantling some of the inequities that are perpetuated within our academic institutions and across society. They can become vehicles for social, racial, and economic equity. (I am much less knowledgeable of the financial costs and intricacies of athletics at four-year universities, so I limit my assertions to the associate degree-granting domain).

Prioritizing what is core is no easy task in an era of increasing costs and level or declining public financial support. Rather than categorically rejecting the notion that athletics has a role in our mission, we should explore all alternatives when making difficult decisions. Inviting divergent voices and seeking out those with expert knowledge on the matter who are further down the hierarchy than those who sit on our cabinets can also be helpful. Also, to hear from students themselves about how the sport they play, their teammates, and their coaches and athletic staff (who often serve as surrogate parents) help them become better students, athletes, people, and citizens can help skeptics develop a better appreciation for collegial sports.

Much like nursing student cohorts that are touted as best practice models to help students develop a strong sense of community and equip them with support systems that can help them overcome academic and life challenges en route to completing their programs, athletic teams, especially in community colleges, are known to do the same. Athletics can help students develop confidence, positive academic and broad self-concept, self-efficacy, and help them pursue noble careers since our economy is currently not experiencing a shortage of athletes. (It’s not just the probability of making it big that is low; supply outweighs demand).

As we define what is core and what isn’t in a changing demographic and political context, equity in educational access and achievement are certainly core to our community college mission. Athletics will not solve the problems that we face around equity as a society, nor is starting a new athletics program a panacea for resolving enrollment and other issues. There are costs associated with athletics, and the benefits are more complex than our financial models reflect. Remaining conscious and vigilant about equity issues, being intentional about supporting and promoting female scholar athletes is equality important to equity within athletics programs.

Yves Salomon-Fernandez is incoming President of Greenfield Community College located in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Follow her @PrezYves




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