Making Our Case

In the January 23rd issue of Sports Illustrated, Seth Davis writes about the trend of high school basketball players leaving high school in their senior year so that they can start playing in college earlier.  In “The Case for … Starting College Early,” Davis writes about the Auburn coaching staff approaching a recruit in his junior year at Spain Park High in Alabama.  They encouraged Austin Wiley’s family to arrange an early graduation by transferring to Calusa Prep in Miami while playing basketball for The Conrad Academy in Orlando until he enrolled at Auburn and played in his first game last December.  By my count, that’s four different schools in less than 12 months.

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl argues that players heading to college early “get college coaching” “a meaningful off-season” and “closer to a degree.”  The NCAA appreciates the latter argument, asserting on its website that “the ultimate goal of the college experience is graduation.”  Yet, less than half of Auburn’s men’s basketball players who enrolled in 2009 had earned a degree from Auburn University by 2016 (according to 2016 US Department of Education Federal Graduation Rate statistics).

Kentucky coach John Calipari, who helped 18-year-old Hamidou Diallo enroll at UK this spring even though he may enter the NBA draft next year without ever playing a minute for the Wildcats, added: “If a young man is 18 and has a chance to go to college as an 18-year old, he should do it.  I don’t know why you wouldn’t.”

Unless you consider that only 29% of Wildcat men’s basketball players who enrolled in the school in 2009 earned a University of Kentucky degree by 2016.  To be fair, a record number of Kentucky players left college early to play in the NBA, likely a far more lucrative option than many of their Kentucky classmates had even with a degree.  Kentucky is the outlier however: only 1% of NCAA men’s basketball players actually have the opportunity to play in the NBA.

Click image. NCAA screenshot shows graduation rates vs. professional playing opportunities.  Yes, those are multiple typographical errors on the NCAA website touting the academic success of college student-athletes.

Coach Calipari previously asserted that the advancement of his players’ personal goals is paramount, even more than winning a national championship: “[My mission is] to be the vehicle that helps others reach their dreams, be the stone that creates the ripple in their lives that goes on and on and on.”

Sounds a lot like what we’re trying to do in high school education.  So why do these college basketball coaches feel so confident in publicly dismissing the value of the senior year experience in high school?

It’s not just college football and basketball: we are experiencing this phenomenon in volleyball.  High school student-athletes are increasingly seeking to leave high school early and enroll in college during what would be the spring semester of their senior year, and in response to decreasing participation USA Volleyball has moved up the National Championships for the 18s division, holding the tournament two months before all other age divisions.

I believe that college coaches are doing this for many of the right reasons.  They correctly assert that college coaches have more time and resources to dedicate to the training of student-athletes, including strength, conditioning, nutrition and academic programs.  Certainly having more time with their student-athletes on campus can improve the team dynamic, and college coaches can more quickly identify and address problems with student-athletes during off-season training.

On the other hand, college coaches don’t articulate the disadvantages of transitioning a student months before the rest of their freshman class comes on campus, or address the national statistics that indicate that more students every year are entering college unprepared academically and socially.  Many college coaches bemoan the lack of focus, leadership and program commitment from incoming players, while underestimating the abilities of high school and club coaches who could help form those characteristics.

If I were a college coach, I would want more time with my players too.  The tremendous pressures on athletic programs and the significant responsibilities of players and coaches makes every day with a college team important.

However, as a high school educator, I also want more time to help form these talented young people.  As seniors they can engage in a more personalized academic environment to prepare them for a university classroom.  They should spend time with mentors on campus who can challenge them to become active contributors and leaders, committed to leaving a positive legacy in their high schools.  They should work with coaches who have grown to know them and their families well and can assist them in developing life balance that will be essential in the pressure-packed world of intercollegiate athletics.  They must become mentors and teachers themselves, so that they are prepared to assume that role in college and later in life.  In short: they need to develop the characteristics that universities and intercollegiate athletics programs claim to seek in prospective students, but may be in fact keeping them from gaining by enrolling them in college too early.

Early enrollment isn’t the fault of college coaches or universities.  The fact that nobody is willing or able to articulate the value of the academic, athletic and social formation during the senior year of high school falls squarely on the shoulders of high school administrators, teachers and coaches.  Have we become too comfortable allowing or even enabling “senioritis?”  Has our willingness to allow twelfth graders to coast through classes, practices and competitions rendered the experience expendable?  Have we missed an important leadership opportunity by not pressing seniors into significant responsibilities to care for and lead younger athletes?  In short, are we failing our students by providing a poor senior year experience?

This is a wake-up call for us to examine the senior year in high school classrooms and gymnasiums, and to commit ourselves to providing an exceptional experience making sure that every student and family knows how important the 12th grade is to their short and long-term future.

As Pearl argues, “Why discourage someone from taking advantage of an opportunity to better himself?”

I couldn’t agree more. Shame on us if a student’s senior year in high school doesn’t offer an outstanding chance to better themselves.

It’s time for high school educators to make the case for a high school senior year that every student can’t afford to miss.

-Jason Curtis

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2 thoughts on “Making Our Case

  1. These are key questions every high school educator should ask him- or herself:

    “Have we become too comfortable allowing or even enabling ‘senioritis?’ Has our willingness to allow twelfth graders to coast through classes, practices and competitions rendered the experience expendable?”

    • An unspoken truth is that when students check out, our job as teachers and coaches gets easier: we don’t have to work very hard on lesson plans or preparing practice. Hopefully we have colleagues and mentors that encourage us to make sure that our jobs DON’T get easier, and that we embrace the challenge of students who expect more out of us as educators. Even difficult students are engaged and can learn – it’s when we allow students to become apathetic that formation stops happening.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. – Jason