Athletes' Postcollege Outcomes

New Gallup-Purdue study finds comparatively high levels of well-being and engagement among college athletes.

February 17, 2016

College athletes are just as likely as -- and in some cases more likely than -- other students to find full-time employment and to be highly engaged in the workplace, according to new report based on an ongoing Gallup-Purdue University study of college graduates.

National Collegiate Athletic Association researchers have long tracked certain athlete outcomes, such as graduation rates, but the association said this week that the Gallup survey provides the clearest look yet at how athletes compare to the general student body. The report, however, offers little insight into whether outcomes differ by sport or level of competition, such that the results blur any possible differences between Division III squash players and top-division football stars.

“We’ve done a lot of research on former and current athletes, but we’ve never been able to get a solid comparison group for nonathletes,” Todd Petr, the NCAA's managing director of research, said. “This study gives us that direct comparison.”

The new report, which was commissioned by the NCAA, included responses from 712 Division I athletes, 206 Division II athletes and 523 Division III athletes. Another 230 athletes responded to the survey, but they did not indicate what division they were from.

Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education and Workforce Development, said the small number of Division II players in the survey prevented the researchers from analyzing athlete outcomes by division. Similarly, he said, the number of athlete respondents resulted in a sample that was too small to break the analysis down by sport.

The survey collected responses from athletes who graduated between 1970 and 2014. The answers were then compared to those of 22,813 nonathletes who graduated from the same institutions during that time period. The study used the Gallup-Purdue Index to analyze the responses in three categories: workplace engagement, well-being and alumni attachment.

Nearly two-thirds of former athletes (65 percent) reported being employed full time, compared to 63 percent of nonathletes. Of those who were fully employed, 42 percent of former athletes reported being engaged in the workplace, compared to 38 percent of nonathletes. Female athletes were the most likely to be engaged at work, with 48 percent reporting high levels of engagement, compared to 41 percent of nonathlete female students.

The researchers defined being "engaged" as workers who are involved in and enthusiastic about their work, feel intellectually and emotionally connected to their work, and are loyal and productive.

The employment prospects of athletes after graduation was a frequent topic of discussion at the NCAA’s annual meeting this year. College athletics officials, including the association’s president, Mark Emmert, said they were worried that too many athletes had unrealistic expectations of their chances of playing professional sports -- and that those beliefs could lead athletes to spend more time on their sports than on studying.

“The story is complex,” said Tom Paskus, the NCAA's principal research scientist. “What this helps show is that athletic and academic identity and aspiration is not an either-or sort of thing. We certainly see that there are very high pro aspirations among athletes, but they’re coming in with very high aspirations for their academics and careers as well. Trying to balance those can be difficult at times, but we also see in our own research that more than 40 percent of athletes think they’ll go on to graduate school.”

The Gallup-Purdue survey found that 33 percent of athletes pursue graduate course work or degrees, compared to 31 percent of nonathletes. About 68 percent of former athletes graduated in four years, compared to 66 percent of nonathletes.

The survey also measured former athletes’ well-being in five categories: purpose, social, financial, community and physical. Using those metrics, Gallup classifies students’ well-being as thriving, struggling or suffering. The survey found that athletes were as likely to be thriving in financial well-being as nonathletes and more likely than nonathletes to be thriving in the remaining categories.

Athletes were also more likely to report having what the researchers call “key campus experiences” that are closely tied to well-being. Two-thirds of athletes said they had professors who “cared about [them] as a person,” compared to 59 percent of nonathletes, and 90 percent of athletes said they had at least one professor who made them excited about learning.

“This is a group that has as high levels of well-being as any demographic we’ve broken out,” Busteed, of Gallup, said.

David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University and an advocate for reforming college sports, said while many athletes do go on to live “very productive lives,” he criticized the report’s findings as “incomplete.”

Earlier research has shown large differences in outcomes for athletes when the data are broken down by sport, NCAA division and race -- categories that are largely absent in the Gallup-Purdue study.

The researchers did analyze how football and men’s basketball players compared to other athletes and students with regard to well-being. More than 60 percent of men’s basketball and football players said they were “thriving” in purpose well-being, meaning they “like what they do each day and are motivated to achieve their goals.” Comparatively, 54 percent of other athletes were thriving in this category and fewer than half of nonathletes were.

Men’s basketball and football players were also the most likely to be thriving in social well-being and community well-being. Thanks to their healthier eating habits and access to coaches and trainers, athletes are also more likely than nonathletes to be thriving in physical well-being, which Gallup describes as “having physical health that is near perfect and feeling active and productive every day of the week.”

Men’s basketball and football players, however, are significantly less likely to be thriving in physical well-being than other athletes. Paskus said the lower levels of physical well-being could be related to “concussions, or everything from diabetes to joint issues.” Less than 30 percent of football and men’s basketball players are thriving in physical well-being, the study found, compared to nearly half of other athletes and one-third of nonathletes.

It’s those kinds of differences between types of athletes that Ridpath said researchers should explore.

“Comparing all athletes to the general student population is not really a fair comparison,” Ridpath said. “There’s a lot of statistical dancing here. The report pulls out of a lot of positive things, but we also know that athletes are struggling with time issues, that many Division I football and men’s basketball players are not very engaged in the classroom, and that they graduate at lower rates. I think we have to really look at the devil in these details.”


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