On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Joshua Steele and Carmin Chan to discuss the complex lives of student athletes, and how institutions can create a more flexible, consistent and defined pathway for their academic journeys.
Voiceover (00:04): Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast focused on transformation and change in the higher education space. On today's episode, we're speaking with two guests, Joshua Steele, who is Associate Vice Provost of Online Learning and Academic Programs at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Carmen Chan, who is Senior Director of Online Student Success Initiatives at the University of Arizona. Josh Carmen and podcast host Amalia discuss the complex lives of student athletes and how institutions can create a more flexible, consistent, and defined pathway for their academic journeys.
Amrit Ahluwalia: Josh and Carmen, welcome to the Illumination Podcast. It's great to be chatting with you guys. Thank you so much. Great to be here. So now you guys have identified four distinct athlete profiles that could benefit from a concerted engagement strategy at post-secondary institutions. And I'm curious if you guys could just give us an, an overview or an introduction through the profiles of athletes that you know, universities and, and that your teams in gen specifically tend to support.
Joshua Steele: Yeah, absolutely. So, one population that, that we work with quite a bit is returning student athletes actually who maybe have left the institution before graduating and are actually looking for opportunities in which to graduate. And historically these individuals have had to jump through inordinate hoops to be able to come back and earn their degree. It might look like carving some time in the summer to come back to campus and take some abbreviated courses and stacking those over the course of several years, reapplying every single summer to do that.
Amrit Ahluwalia: That's probably what this looked like, you know, several years ago. And so the online programs really provide a lot more flexibility to allow those individuals to come back and graduate from their home institution. I know a lot it gets talked about with the 40 million and growing adults in the United States with some college, but no degree. We know that every single one of our institutions contributes to that number a subset of that number. And then what we found is a subset of that population are these individuals who left for, in often cases, really good reasons to pursue a career in professional athletics. And these online programs really just provide a, a, a much more flexible and a path to earning a degree at their the institution in which they competed.
Carmin Chan: Yeah. And another important student population of student athletes that we serve are sometimes the students that already started with our institution and maybe were competitive athletes, you know, competing in division one sports in, in their respective areas. And where online learning ends up being a much more flexible option for them to be able to balance their competition schedules, the travel schedules that are often a part of that. And, and where, you know, ultimately they're, they're trying to balance, you know, again, these very busy lives that happen as, as student athletes that are competing at that elite level. And so we've had, within Arizona online at the University of Arizona, a number of students who had actually started and, and begun on our main campus here in Tucson, Arizona. And then at various stages in their academic career, decided to shift into that online modality as a way to be able to still get done. And, and, you know, again, to still finish within, you know, that kind of more traditional timeline but to balance their busy lives more easily.
Joshua Steele: A population that I, I will admit probably surprised me in that when I entered my career in education, it's, it's always been focused on adult learners. I I didn't fully understand the value that just an increase in online courses can provide to existing student athletes who, unlike the previous solution situation are, are switching to a fully online program. But these are student athletes who lead extremely busy lives. Hectic travel schedules to where a, a one or two or or more online asynchronous courses just really provide a lot of helpful flexibility. We all know that these individuals, they need to continue to make progress on their degree. They need to perform at a high level in the classroom. But as we ask them to travel and, and, and compete, they are obviously missing classes in there.
And they are always responsible for making up that, that class time. And in synchronous lectures, that's a, that's a fairly burdensome ask for a lot of people on the institution, the student athlete, but also the instructors as well. And so for a student athlete who's normally taking four or five courses at a time, even just two courses that are online, asynchronous, just cuts that down and, and grants them the same flexibility that we recognize is so valuable for our working adult students who are balancing career and and family responsibility. So that flexibility really translates to this the population of our student athletes who are on campus engaged in N C A A athletics but just during competition season needs a little bit more flexibility.
Carmin Chan: And then there was one other population that we wanted to highlight, which are also prospective student athletes. Particularly those that might be coming from outta state and wanting to come to our institutions. At least speaking for the university that I'm a part of, oftentimes the tuition model and online learning functions differently than the residential tuition model where there's out-of-state tuition and fees and things like that. Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative>. And, and the reality is that not every student athlete gets the benefit of the full scholarship ride to their college education. And so that more flexible tuition model that's offered by online programs cod with the course flexibility and the travel flexibility that we talked about actually can make this a really helpful recruitment tool. And so within the University of Arizona and Arizona online, we actually partner quite closely with our athletics teams and, and the coaching staff as they're working with prospective student athletes, particularly transfer student athletes who they're trying to recruit to come to our institutions who might be walk-on athletes that don't otherwise qualify for those additional scholarship resources.
But where there's still, you know, could be incredible assets to the team. But where financially that that online tuition model can end up being something that really helps to make the University of Arizona or or their other, you know, whichever institution, a much more viable option for them while allowing them that flexibility throughout their, their academic career. And I'll say that also extends beyond just our, our NCAA athletes, but also to some of our other club sports as well. You know, we have hockey and rugby and some other sports that, again, don't qualify for the same kind of financial resourcing that division one athletics sometimes have access to. But again, we're we're similarly, they're trying to compete and pursue their athletic interests along with their academic interests. And the, the online tuition models can be a really great benefit.
Amrit Ahluwalia: Yeah. I gotta tell you, this is a topic that's so fascinating 'cause we tend to think of athletics as being something of a product of the university. But there's a human component to this as well. And for such a visible part of the post-secondary ecosystem, we really don't know a lot about the academic journeys or the academic pathways of, of student athletes now, before. And, and, you know, I'll, I'll say it now, and for you guys, obviously we've got a, a sort of guidepost question list that, that we're walking through for this interview. But I'm gonna go off it slightly 'cause I'm just fascinated to know what led you guys to, to start researching this topic? What led to the interest that, that you've brought to, to really diving into this, this student population, their journey and, and their needs?
Joshua Steele: I would say for me, it happened entirely by accident. Like I, I mentioned a little bit earlier, I you know, my career and education has been faced on online learning, really with a passion for a, a working adult student. And seemingly happens is at an institution that I'm at as we grow our online presence, there's a knock at my door with our colleagues who support student athletes. And a lot of times I think a lot of our institutions have that unit of advisors or coach counselors and, and maybe success coaches that are there really to support this population in recognition of the rigors of being a, a student athlete. And they really pride themselves at the institutions that I've been at in developing long-term relationships and, and recognizing that these individuals journeys to getting a degree may need to take a break as we know many of our students do. And so, oftentimes I've been hunted down by, by these individuals who are, who want to ensure that we are aware of this population. So I have to say that I have greatly benefited from my colleagues in those units who have really helped educate me about the value of online programs for this population and, and has, and have brought up these different scenarios to help us think through how do we make this part of our strategy to ensure that we're su we're supporting everybody.
Carmin Chan: Yeah, definitely. To echo what Josh said, I I think that, you know, similarly, as we have opportunities to collaborate more closely with our, our athletics divisions, I think there also is this really great symbiotic information sharing that happens on both ends where, you know, they're helping us to better understand the needs of, of the student athletes that they're working with. And, and we're helping them to understand the realities that they need to help kind of contextualize what those student athletes about what online learning is really going to entail, what some of the challenges are that they're gonna need to plan for. Not making assumptions about it being any less rigorous or, or, or less intensive is, is what they would've otherwise been expected to do in a, a live or an in-person class. But, but at the same time, making sure that they're going into that and that their staff, those support staff, the success coaches are learning specialists, are also well aware of some of the unique resources or services that we may offer specifically for our online student populations that may look different or function differently than what they're accustomed to.
And they're working with a residential student athlete population, but where we wanna make sure that those online student athletes are getting those same benefits and they're getting plugged into the right resources, the right time if they need additional support with tutoring or with mental health or wellness or other, other elements of the student experience that we know can wrap around and help support their academic success.
Amrit Ahluwalia: Absolutely. Do you know, what strikes me, and, and you both kind of mentioned this in, in the, as you walked through the, the four profiles, is how much this audience has in common with the working adults that we've, you know, historically thought of as being the core audience for online and continuing education programming. So as you think through sort of the challenges that these individuals tend to face, I mean, what are some of the obstacles that student athletes will tend to encounter when it comes to creating that sort of consistent and defined pathway to, to academic success, to, you know, credential attainment to completion, to, to achieving their academic goals as well as athletic?
Carmin Chan: I think, you know, some of the things that are, that all of our students, you know, kind of have to balance as they're coming in is being able to manage their time and, and their energies when they need to. And, and as the semester sort of ebb and flow. And I think where that's unique oftentimes for many online courses or on or fully online programs is that we tend to use a, a different calendar. We, you know, university of Arizona, we follow a seven and a half week calendar. And it's not uncommon to have those more condensed terms. And so it, it creates added urgency when you're talking about time management and building balance schedules. Because you're not juggling five or six classes at once, you're, you're juggling two or three, but they're super intensive every day, every week counts.
And so you can't they can't tune out or, or otherwise you know, sort of put it on a back burner for any length of time without it having a snowball effect. And so really making sure they come into that clear-eyed and, and that they understand what those time commitments are going to look like in a given week. Again, they have the flexibility to move that time around where it makes sense for their training schedules and travel schedules. But the time commitment is still the same. And sometimes infra can frankly be more intensive than they might be used to. And so preparing for the learning curve that can sometimes come with that I think is, is something that is very much in common with all of our students, but is, is sort of, has added urgency for them as student athletes with the other obligations. They're balancing.
Joshua Steele: I would say one advantage that this population has that's maybe different from some of our working adults is for an existing student athlete on campus, there are very clear regulations and expectations about making progress, right? So whereas when we talk about working adult students, they can be part-time students. They, they might be able to take a break for a semester. That's not the case for student athletes, right? Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative>. So they have to be enrolled every semester. They have to be enrolled full-time. And so that means that they're, they are making progress to their degree. I don't think we talk about it as much anymore, but there used to be this narrative about the importance of taking 15 credits every semester, right? So 12 credits doesn't get, doesn't, if you take 12 credits every semester for four years, you don't earn a degree.
So we'll just have everyone tack on an extra course and make sure that everyone takes 15 credits. And that completely ignores the fact that an additional three credits is an additional 10 hours of total time. Right? And, and, and so do we, do we have that? And so we know that for someone to graduate, if they're only enrolled fall, spring, that they need to take 15 units. And the question is, is can all of these student athletes always be able to take 15 credits in a semester, even during competition seasons? So I think oftentimes they do need to be year round. They might have to get some of those additional units in, in, in the summer. But just a, a recognition that some student athletes can't take the 15 credit hours every semester that would, that allow them to graduate in four years. That can play a role in, in their overall ability to graduate on time as well. And I, and I will say I think a lot of our institutions have tremendous graduation rates for, for student athletes. But for those, for those sports and those athletes where there's may be an opportunity to, to be to move into a career much quicker, that's where we really see much of this challenge, I think.
Amrit Ahluwalia: Interesting. Lemme ask you guys something, 'cause it, it's what, you just made a comment there that there's, you know, the, the the assumption that because they're traditionally students, they should be able to take on the same course load or the same credit load as as anyone else who's enrolled. What are some of the most common misconceptions that you've seen not even necessarily at your institutions, but in, in our industry in general, that other, you know, that other leaders, other faculty members, other staff members will hold when it comes to student athletes? Like, what are some of the most prevalent misconceptions you've, you've observed?
Joshua Steele: I think that very few of us fully understand the complete commitment that being a student athlete entails. And, and, and I know, you know, we often say they're students first, and, and, and they are. That, that, that's very true. But I don't think that we fully respect the, the type of schedules that student athletes carry on our campus on a day-to-day basis. Sure there are regulations on practice hours and, and sure there's you know, travel kind of interspersed and hopefully people aren't, you know, traveling for two weeks at a time. And, and our, our respective sports may, may, may be handled that differently, but the amount, I mean, these are, these are athletes competing at the highest level. They're, they're, they're super human. And so the, the training schedules outside of practices continuing to hone their craft and, and, and their sport.
And then yes, being a a, a stellar student athlete, we earning GP earning A G P A that allows 'em to continue to compete. They don't have a lot of extra time within their day. So the fact that they are performing well in the classroom performing in a, at a high level division one, and in our cases sometimes very prominently right on, on television and exposed to the public eye that is a, a lot for anyone to take on. And especially individuals these age. And I, I've come away with an immense amount of respect for the dedication of the, of the student athletes on our campus.
Carmin Chan: Yeah. And I think, you know, again, there often carrying a lot of added weights on their shoulders above and beyond, you know, it's not just about their athletics. They carry the hopes and dreams of their families alongside them who've invested incredibly in their, in, in their child and their in, in this, in this student. And so I think the students feel this pressure not only to perform athletically, but academically and otherwise, to make the most of this opportunity that they've worked so hard to get, especially if they're a scholarship athlete, but really for any student athlete that's, you know, trying to compete at, at these levels. And, and so that, you know, recognizing that they bring that it, it's an enormous asset that they've got this community around them supporting their, their endeavors. But that does bring that added pressure that that can, you know, be a real challenge that, that they have to manage those added stresses.
And then I think the one other thing that I, I think is important to acknowledge is that, you know, because sometimes student athletes athletics may have been a, a primary focus for them through much of their academic career in the K 12 sector. And, and obviously they've had to be able to, to be a student and, and to be able to, you know, accomplish their academics in order to earn a, a spot within any college or university. But sometimes they may come in having areas of, of their prior academic history that need additional scaffolding and support. And where it really becomes critical to make sure that we're helping to, to meet their needs. If, if there's areas where, you know, they, they need an added support, you know, with, with a particular subject matter especially if they're know, again, because of the, how, how tightly bound the academic requirements are for them to maintain their academic scholarships.
There's no room for them to slip up. There's no room for them to, to struggle in a class and have to retake it like that puts everything else in their life in jeopardy. And so they're that pressure coupled with the, you know, realities that they're, they may be superhuman athletically, but like, they're, they're real life people and we all have strengths and weaknesses and sometimes have areas that we may struggle but it just makes it that much harder or reinforces that fear of failure that that can make it challenging for them as they're pushing through certain you know, courses or, or gateway classes that can otherwise, you know, cause a diversion on their academic path that just has so much more gravity to it than, than just your typical student who's shopping for a major and trying to figure out what they wanna do with their life. It's like they don't have that kind of freedom to, to just explore or to make those mistakes, or they, they often feel that, that that's very difficult.
Amrit Ahluwalia: Fascinating. That's a really interesting insight. You know, it's, it's interesting you mentioned, it's one of these things I've always wondered about is what it must be like to have an analyst break down a game on Monday morning on E S P N and then go to class mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. I, I can't, I can't imagine. I, I'm so curious, as you think about the work that online continuing ed divisions do, I mean, how can the work of these units help to minimize the impact of, of these barriers, these challenges, and these misconceptions for student athletes while they're enrolled in or at least pursuing their degrees?
Joshua Steele: I'll say, I think there a, a level of intentionality that I'll admit I didn't always enter this conversation with, right? But as we think about developing online programs which, you know, is, is part of my mission and, and part of my charge at, at my institution, there's almost like another secondary conversation that we can talk about, about how do we establish hybrid opportunities. Like how do we create that same flexibility for some residential students who can't attend all of their classes in person? And you know, the data show that we have more and more of our residential students who need to work more and more of our, of our, of our students who are unable to participate in the same way in in higher ed than they, than they did before. And so, being intentional about that and creating course schedules that allow students that flexibility rather than hoping on a semester by semester basis, am I going to be able to structure my schedule in a way that, that that really works for my life?
'Cause I be, I bet if we talk to some of the 40 million plus with some college no degree, they have that kind of junction point, right, where they determine that I cannot continue at my institution because it does not fit within my life. And I think student athletes have necessarily persisted through that for very different reasons than, than our existing population. But being intentional about producing opportunities to ensure that people who started our institutions can finish with a little bit more flexibility as they, as they move on in their career. I think it's a, a vital component of this work.
And I think the key to that is making sure that our institutions are framing online learning as an equally valid and equally rigorous option to degree completion. And that starts from the minute every single student, regardless of campus or platform, arrives at our institution, letting them know that they have the choice in modality that fits best for them. And if you frame it as an equal option from the beginning of their journey, when life circumstances come up, when those diversions happen, they know this is just another option that they can choose. It's part of the portfolio of the university, and it's not any lesser of an option. It is an equivalent and just as impactful way for them to be able to complete their education goals and, and to become an alum of our institutions.
Amrit Ahluwalia: You know, it's, it's interesting we're talking about these as we talk about student athletes, and it, it's just, it is really striking how common that the narrative is for these learners to the experience of, of an, of, of an adult learner, of someone who's juggling significant life pressures, work pressures and trying to make education fit within a very challenging environment. And obviously, one, one of the profiles you guys mentioned right off the top was, you know, folks who get drafted it's a student athlete who finds themselves achieving that dream making their way into the professional ranks and, and leaving the university before earning that credential, but then coming back, whether it's in the summertime or later, later in life, to, to finish that degree. And it's one of these things that, again, it comes back to this idea of the broader role of, of online and continuing education, right? Because it's, it's not just about you know, non-credit programming for, for adults. It's not just, it's, it is about creating pathways back to degree for folks who would've otherwise been alumni for former students. So I'm curious about how you and your teams maintained those relationships with students who left prior to earning their credentials and how that approach could be extended not just to other student athletes, but also to, to the, we mentioned earlier, the 40 min million approximately American adults with some college experience with no credential.
Carmin Chan: Yeah. I think the beginning of, of, you know, helping to continue to engage or reengage with former student athletes who've gone pro or who've otherwise shifted out to pursue their athletic pursuits I, I think really happens in partnership with our athletics departments and our teams. And that's you, again, part of that symbiotic relationship as we're working with current students as well. But oftentimes our, our athletics departments, you know, they're certainly incentivized to have as much as many students achieve degree completion as possible. That's how they're assessed as well. And so knowing that we're a tool in that toolbox to help them accomplish that for other student athletes and, and really helping to plant that seed that, you know, yes, you're going pro now, let's continue to, to whittle away at those degree requirements as your schedule allows and keep them engaged as a student or make a plan for when they're gonna come back in the future, or as, as their athletic career may, may shift into a different mode, or, or they may, you know, kind of reach the end of their athletic career and, and wanting to be able to come back and, and finish the academic pursuits that they started.
But it all, it all begins with making sure that they know that that's a pathway back, that there's always a way for them to return and, and making sure that they're aware of that as, as they're going off to pursue those exciting opportunities and and athletic pursuits.
Joshua Charles: Yeah. And, and, and you're right, it's in a lot of ways this has become a new conversation, right? So Knoxville flagship land grant institution, but it's in the third largest city in, in the state of Tennessee, right? And so historically, if a student left, oftentimes they were leaving Knoxville, they were going back home to Nashville or Memphis or, or crossing state lines. And so we could, we maintain a relationship with these individuals through like our alumni associations and things like that, but it was never on the table to have a conversation about coming back to, 'cause we, we know how hard it is for you to, you moved here once, are you gonna move back here again, <laugh>, right? That that's not a conversation. Like if that's, if that's our selling point, that's not really what a conversation we're having. And so by having online specific pathways, it's opening us up to start thinking about this conversation in a different way with our, with our students who come back because now there actually is an option that doesn't involve coming every summer for the next eight years in hopes of, of completing your degree.
Amrit Ahluwalia: I imagine Knoxville and Tucson in the middle of summer, potentially not the most welcoming place summer either, <laugh>. So, you know, I'm curious, as you guys think about your experiences in building these, these relationships with your athletics departments and, and your alumni affairs offices, what kind of advice would you share with other leaders in online and continuing ed units that are looking to establish relationships of their own with, with these shops on their campuses?
Carmin Chan: It really starts with relationship building together with those teams, especially the student facing teams that, that are working with those student athletes and helping to support their, their day-to-day journey. Because oftentimes those student facing staff, you know, they're, they're the biggest advocates of those student athletes. They want to see that they're invested in their success and wanting to see them not only achieve athletically, but also achieve academically. And so, you know, helping them to, to be more fully aware of all the resources and opportunities that that online learning can offer in, in support of the student athletes that they're working with. Just help them to become your biggest advocates, right? You're, you're helping them to help, you know, be more aware of this opportunity for, for the students who they work with. And, and that really just begins with those conversations, helping to do cross training opportunities, helping them to learn more about what online learning looks like at our institutions.
And then also, you know, having opportunities for our online teams to learn more about working with the student athlete populations as well. You know, here at the University of Arizona, we, we do cross training at least on an annual basis, together with our Katz Athletics team who are those student facing staff where, you know, again, we're meeting with them and sharing ideas and resources, they're meeting with us and coming and meet with our online advising team members a as well, so that we're all on the same page and communicating that and, and working with those students.
Joshua Steele: And I think as we build those relationships, we're gonna find willing partners. I think there's a lot of excitement and that, and that's been my experience. I think what I would recommend, or what I recognize is that we have to broaden our definition of success in our roles because for the four populations that we've talked about, not all of them contribute to a growth goal in online programs, right? But it's very still, it's still very meaningful to the institution and contributing to good work. And so I think if we demonstrate a willingness to think broadly about success, share success stories being able to talk qualitatively and, and about the narrative of, of what we're performing and what we're doing I think that's really important because it may not always be reflected in a metric that might be a traditional metric in which we are evaluating our own success. So thinking very broadly about that and celebrating, I, I always like to talk about celebrating the ends of one. Even if it's not coming in on, on this metric we can really demonstrate that we're making a really big impact in somebody's life.
Amrit Ahluwalia: Absolutely. Well, guys, I mean, that pretty much does it on my end. Now, the way we like to, to close out our podcasts is, is with a restaurant recommendation. So, Carmen, I'll, I'll start with you. If, if someone's going out to dinner in Tucson, Arizona, where do they need to go?
Carmin Chan: So we are so fortunate here in Tucson to have an amazing culinary scene where we were designated as a unesco world Heritage Site for, for Gastronomy. But one of my favorite restaurants is called Boca Tacos with Chef Maria Maison. She is a chef that's competed on a number of different cooking shows and other things, but she truly lives up to the great work that she's done in those spaces. Her food is amazing. She has fresh homemade salsas and amazing cocktails, and of course, the tacos are to die for. So definitely one of my favorite Mexican food restaurants. And we're also lucky she does a whole bunch of great collaborative restaurant concepts with some of the other notable chefs here in Tucson. But she's one of my favorites here locally.
Amrit Ahluwalia: You know what, I watched that season of Top Chef and I did not realize that she was based in Tucson. That's really cool. Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative> Josh in Knoxville, Tennessee. Where does someone need to go for dinner?
Joshua Steele: Yeah. One of my favorites. It's Amelia, it's an Italian place in, in Market Square, right in the heart of downtown. Tremendous house-made homemade pastas. I describe their carbon era as borderline life changing. So it is one of my go-to meals whenever I need a food that makes me happy. <Laugh>
Amrit Ahluwalia: Awesome, guys. I, I so appreciate you taking the time out. Thank you for the work that you're doing as well. It's, it's really been a pleasure.
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