Athletics and Academics: Incompatible?

hutchins_0Recently I have been reading some essays on education by Robert Maynard Hutchins (the collection was a thoughtful gift from an alum).  Though they were published during the Great Depression, they contain some timeless insights on the value of education and the role of the university in society.  Hutchins was president at the University of Chicago during a period in which it was becoming one of the preeminent universities in the country.  One of Hutchins’ innovations was the famous Chicago Core Curriculum.  “This famed Core curriculum, a model for American general education, is the University of Chicago student’s introduction to the tools of inquiry used in every discipline—science, mathematics, humanities, and social sciences. The goal is not just to transfer knowledge, but to raise fundamental questions and become familiar with the powerful ideas that shape our society.”

As I explored Hutchins’ biography a bit more, I discovered he was also famous for his views on athletics at the University of Chicago.  As the University’s website tells it,

The one thing which drew more attention than any other, of course, was his elimination of varsity football. Hutchins heaped scorn upon schools which received more press coverage for their sports teams than for their educational programs, and a run of disastrous seasons gave him the trustee support he needed to drop football in 1939. The decision was hailed by many, but few other schools followed Chicago’s lead.

220px-University_of_Chicago_logo.svgThis move was particularly striking as the University of Chicago was, at the time, a member of the Big Ten, had won a national championship in 1905, had a Heisman trophy winner in Jay Berwanger in 1935, were known as “the Monsters of the Midway”  and had been the home of Amos Alonzo Stagg for 40 years.

This storied history left Hutchins unmoved.  “By getting rid of football, by presenting the spectacle of a university that can be great without football, the University of Chicago may perform a signal service to higher education throughout the land,” Hutchins wrote, calling the sport “a major handicap to education in the United States.”

In The Saturday Evening Post Hutchins had written, maybe somewhat intemperately: “In many colleges, it is possible for a boy to win 12 letters without learning how to write one,” the university’s president, had written acidly of sports in The Saturday Evening Post. He particularly disparaged football, deriding as myth the idea that the game produced men of good character or instilled a sense of fair play. Indeed, for a college to be a success on the field, he said, it must be something of a scoundrel beyond it.

Hutchins is something of a hero and inspiration to those who continue to worry about the impact of big-time college sports on the academic mission of the university.  There is even an award named after him that “is given annually to faculty or staff members who take a courageous stand to defend academic integrity at their institutions.”

I was thinking of Hutchins last week at our mini-commencement for seniors on the Saint John’s University baseball team.  On our Commencement Day, the team was competing in the post-season MIAC playoffs to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament (which they secured by sweeping the University of St. Thomas), but the timing forced them to miss Commencement with their classmates.  As we have done for athletes with conflicts in the past, we organized a dinner and commencement ceremony for the baseball seniors, their parents and folks from our athletic department.

The nice thing about these special commencements is that you actually get to meet the graduates and their parents and have more in-depth conversations, things that are much more of a challenge with 425 graduates and families in the Abbey Church.  As I interacted with the students and their parents that evening I discovered, not really to my surprise, the following:

  1.  All the students were graduating in four years.
  2. All of the students I talked to had jobs that they were starting in the next couple months.
  3. One student was still deciding between graduate school and a job offer.
  4. One student had turned down a Division II baseball scholarship to play at Saint John’s because the balance between athletics and academics seemed better—a decision that four years in Collegeville had confirmed.
  5. The percentage of baseball players graduating with honors was over 20%, compared to the university’s 15% overall.

As impressive as these young men were, they are typical among our athletes.  I could tell similar stories about every one of our teams, including football, President Hutchins’ views notwithstanding.  What the evening simply reinforced was that there is no inherent conflict between a passion for athletics and a seriousness about academics and education.  Hundreds of students on our campus have both, as do many thousands around the country.

I suspect that the numbers are greater in the NCAA’s Division III, which is the division that the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) competes in, because there are no scholarships, minimal commercial support, and the coaches, fans, parents and athletes are all committed to maintaining the proper balance between athletics and academics.  This is certainly not to say that balance cannot be found in Division II or Division I, but the incentives that come with scholarships and serious outside money make it more difficult.

For all of Hutchins’ wisdom about higher education, his views on the role of athletics are certainly not borne out by the experience of most student-athletes at Saint John’s or DIII more generally.

Football returned to the University of Chicago as a varsity sport in 1969.  The Maroons now play in the University Athletic Conference rather than the Big Ten, competing in Division III, like most other fine liberal arts schools.


Student Loans and Repayment Rates: Johnnies Among Nation’s Best

One of the biggest concerns about the rising cost of higher education is that some students are being required to take out more loans to fund their investment.  While there is concern about the dollar value of the loans (though evidence suggests that average loan amounts are not growing in real terms, see here and here), the underlying concern is that students will not be able to repay their debts given their job prospects and income (though employment prospects continue to be significantly better with a degree than without one).


As part of the growing cottage industry that attempts to evaluate college quality and value-added, the Brookings Institution has calculated a new measure that includes loan repayment rates as one measure of a college’s performance.

At the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University we know we have very low default rates, but this is the first data I have seen comparing schools and attempting to calculate predicted default rates based on student demographics.

A Brookings researcher describes the analysis:

Brookings’new report on college quality attempts to evaluate schools based on their contributions to the economic success of alumni. Federal loan repayment is one of the measures, in addition to mid-career salaries and careers in high-paying occupations. The challenge in evaluating colleges is to isolate the college’s contribution from its students’. Students with higher test scores and from families with higher incomes…will usually earn more money after college compared to their less-advantaged peers. Also, colleges that offer higher-level degree programs (like medical degrees, master’s degrees, and bachelor’s) will tend to have higher-earning graduates than colleges that offer associate’s degree or certificates.

Using these data, Saint John’s University has one of the biggest differences in the country between the Brookings predicted Federal loan repayment rates for our students–89.7%–and actual repayment rates–98.9%. Other schools doing well in this calculation include Brigham Young, Grinnell and Notre Dame.

2015-05-10_SJU_Commencement_041What this outcome suggests is that, like most of the hand-wringing over higher education’s woes, the story on student loans is more complicated than can be captured in a headline and the details vary widely by institution.  Even schools like Saint John’s, that are tuition dependent and whose modest endowments for financial aid often require students to take out some loans, can be great investments for the long run.  As long as students borrow modestly (the median debt at graduation for the two thirds of our students who borrow is about $28,200), they can comfortably pay off those loans with the good job prospects and incomes their bachelor’s degrees provide.

The decision to borrow for higher education should be done thoughtfully, with an eye on the job market (something the Ohio State law grad with $328,000 in debt failed to do) and some evidence that the degree you are earning and the school you are attending has provided previous graduates with good economic outcomes, but a student loan is likely to be the best investment you will ever make.

A Story About Johnnie Character

sju-gradOne of the most enjoyable parts of any educator’s job is to see the growth and development of the young people we work with. Around commencement time there are lots of nice stories about students whose lives have been changed by their education.  In fact, if we do our jobs well for our students, there are almost as many of these great stories as there are students.

But occasionally there is a story that is so out of the ordinary that it deserves repeating.

The Class of 2015 at Saint John’s University has suffered an unusual number of tragic losses during its four years on campus.  Four young men that began with their classmates in the fall of 2011 have died tragically while they were undergraduates.

This story is about one young man who died in an accident in the summer after his freshman year.

Every spring Saint John’s University hosts an event known as Mom Prom.  It is sponsored by the Knights of Columbus chapter on campus, and graduating seniors are invited to bring their mothers to campus for a dinner and dance in Guild Hall–a senior prom.  This event has been so wildly successful that attendance has had to be limited to seniors only due to space considerations.  Multiple moms have told me how much they love this event, to the extent I have even wondered if we have enrolled some students whose mothers pushed SJU during the admissions process so they could go to Mom Prom!

mompromJohnnies often go in groups, as they have gotten to know each other’s parents during their four years in Collegeville.  This spring, as they were planning for Mom Prom, the friends of the student who died after his freshman year recalled that this young man had expressed a wish to take his mom to this event.  The young man knew all about Mom Prom even as a freshman because his older brother was a Johnnie and had taken their mother previously.  To honor this young man, their friendship and his mother, this group invited the mother to go to Mom Prom with them this year.  So in the midst of a busy senior spring–with classes, job searches and all the other senior year activities–these young men generously remembered their friend and his mother.

She was deeply touched by the gesture and, despite what was surely a bittersweet return to Saint John’s, she had a wonderful time with her son’s friends and their mothers.  She said, “These are the caliber of young men you are graduating from Saint John’s.”

I don’t know how much credit Saint John’s can take for the kind and thoughtful character of these young men. I suspect their families might have had a little to do with it, but we are certainly proud to call them Johnnies

We will proudly grant them their degrees this weekend at commencement as we also remember their friends and classmates who will not be with us.

By |May 9th, 2015|Categories: Kudos||0 Comments