After seeing the Wildcats burst out of the locker room before a football game, strapped in shoulder pads and standing taller than six feet, it is hard to remember that they also have to squeeze into desks in Tech for their classes on top of their rigorous practice schedules.
It is harder still to imagine them shaking the hand of their school’s dean at graduation in the spring. But for the majority of the football roster, it will happen.
Northwestern’s student-athlete Graduation Success Rate (GSR) for all sports was last measured by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) at 97 percent in 2008, the best in the Big Ten Conference. The football team itself boasts a GSR of 92 percent. This means that 92 percent of the team, including transfer students and mid-year enrollees, will go on to complete their four-year degrees. At a school like Northwestern, by far the smallest and best school academically in the Big Ten, as well as the only private school in the conference, this feat deserves considerable acknowledgment.
Scoring a GSR in the nineties is not an easy feat. Players have to show up for football practice at Ryan Field as early as six in the morning to get taped and dressed. Afterwards, meetings are held to discuss performance and what to improve upon followed by a two-hour practice on the field. Accompanied with a full course load and homework, it can be hard for players to manage their time efficiently.
Graduate student and wide receiver Andrew Brewer thinks the biggest issue is finishing his work in time to get enough rest before waking up for practice.
“The goal is [to finish by] eight and sometimes that’s unrealistic when you’re taking a full class load,” he said. For Brewer, studying sums up to two or three hours a week, most of which is reading, but he admits that during midterms and finals, these figures jump up significantly. Yet, in the spring of 2009, he graduated with a 3.5 GPA.
The hardest transition is that of freshman players. According to Brewer, the difficulty lies in getting used to how their new school works. However, when participating in a sport, time management is one of the first things players learn to perfect.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald is proud to have such high academic success among his team.
“Our priority is to attract young men to become student athletes,” he said. “And the goal is to get a Northwestern degree.”
As a reward, players with higher GPAs get “points” for each game, which can be used to be excused from some conditioning and training at the beginning of the season. On the opposite end of the spectrum, players who cannot keep up their grades receive a slight penalty.
“We’ll assign a little extra study hall when a player’s GPA falls below a 2.0,” Fitzgerald said.
Football practice used to be an afternoon affair, held from four to nine, but the athletic office felt it would be better to move to a morning schedule to allow players more flexibility with their classes. On the afternoon schedule, players would miss out on six possible class hours, while now they only miss out on two.
“I think the important issue is how to practice in a way that doesn’t interfere with the options for taking courses,” said linguistics Professor Robert Gundlach, Northwestern’s faculty athletics representative to the NCAA and Big Ten Conference.
Student-athletes, like all Northwestern students, get advice on classes from academic advisors. Much of the attention is paid to freshmen who are just beginning to learn how best to manage their time as both a student and a football player.
The main priority of the athletic department’s academic advisors, however, is to make sure all student-athletes meet the eligibility requirements for Northwestern athletics and the Big Ten Conference. As a result, the process of choosing classes is different.
“Student athletes register in advance of other undergraduates so that they can get the classes they need for their academic programs in a way that would fit the best with their schedule,” Gundlach said.
The efforts of the athletic department and the individual athletes themselves have given Northwestern one of the highest GSRs in the nation. The Wildcats’ four-year Academic Progress Rate (APR), last released in 2008, also ranks highest in the country. Their average four-year rate of 969 out of 1,000 has earned them the American Football Coaches Association’s Academic Achievement Award for having the highest graduation rate in the country from 2002 to 2008.