Winning equation: FIU student-athletes reach new heights in the classroom

Last football season, defensive tackle Andrew Tarver began his weekdays at 5:30 a.m. The redshirt freshman would eat breakfast, get taped and meet with the football team prior to practice at 8:45 a.m. After that, he had just enough time to shower and grab some lunch before classes at 1 p.m. Three hours later he was out of class and lifting in the gym. After that, it was player-led meetings until he hit the books again with a pre-calculus class from 6-7:15 p.m. A finance major, Tarver found the math “very tedious,” so at the conclusion of class he often went straight to the Student-Athlete Academic Center (SAAC) for a one-on-one tutoring session from 7:30-9 p.m. with tutor and graduate student Denisse Olarte. Tarver typically ate dinner during tutoring and ended his days with homework and studying in his dorm room.

For his efforts Tarver earned a B+ in pre- calculus, was named to the Conference USA Commissioner’s Academic Honor Roll and recorded eight tackles (including two solo tackles against Western Kentucky University) in the Panthers’ bowl-earning 2017 season.

Andrew Tarver, a finance major and defensive tackle, received scholastic coaching from Denisse Olarte, who tutored him in math at the Student-Athletic Academic Center.

Tarver and the 393 athletes who compete for FIU across 16 sports in Division I-A receive a collective assist in their educational journey from coaches, faculty, academic advisors, SAAC academic coordinators and volunteer tutors. This potent combination propelled FIU’s sports teams to an historic performance in the 2018 NCAA annual Academic Progress Rate (APR) report. Originally created to ensure that the education of student-athletes remains a priority, the APR uses a series of formulas related to student- athlete retention and eligibility to measure the academic performances of all NCAA Division I student-athletes.

The latest APR report, released by the NCAA in May, included APR data from the 2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic years. All 16 teams finished above the required multi-year score of 930, with 15 FIU teams recording scores of 960 or better (1,000 is a perfect score). Women’s golf and women’s cross country were recognized by the NCAA for registering a multi-year score of 1,000, putting them in the top 10 percent of their sports nationally in academic performance. It marked the fourth straight year women’s golf was recognized for its academic success. Nine teams improved their multi-year score (men’s basketball, men’s cross country/track, football, men’s soccer, softball, swimming and diving, women’s tennis and women’s volleyball). The men’s cross country/track program recorded the biggest jump, improving 16 points from last year.

To understand the improvement reflected in the latest numbers, one must first know that less than five years ago one of FIU’s sports teams was put on probation due to low APR scores.

‘If it happens, it has to have a purpose’

For years FIU used a time-based system employed by many universities, one in which student-athletes are required to log a certain amount of hours per week in study hall. In this model, there is often limited oversight in how the students spend their time while in study hall. Still used by a majority of universities today, it is a system that favors quantity (hours) over quality (meaningful time spent).

“Unfortunately, that system tends to foster a swipe-in, swipe-out mentality,” says Wesley Maas, assistant vice president of undergraduate education and director of SAAC. A former football player at South Carolina’s Newberry College, Maas was familiar with the weaknesses of such a system. When FIU saw its APR scores begin to dip, Elizabeth Bejar, senior vice president for academic and student affairs, hired Maas “so we could build a culture that makes sense.”

Maas implemented an objective-based study program at FIU designed to create independent learners. The student-athletes share their course syllabi with their team’s academic coordinators, who then work with the student-athletes to map out their course load for the semester. The athletes meet weekly with the academic coordinators to ensure they remain on track. Some weeks they might spend 10 hours or more at SAAC working on assignments, studying for tests or receiving tutoring. Other weeks it’s less.

“With the system we have in place here, it’s simple: If it happens, it has to have a purpose,” says Shirley Caballero, assistant director at SAAC. Caballero has been at the university since 2011 and with SAAC since 2015. “We don’t focus on the time the athlete is here, we focus on getting the work done.”

Caballero is one of the only academic coordinators to consistently travel with a team, in this case men’s basketball. The experience has given her insight into what it takes to be a Division I student-athlete. She has commandeered hotel meeting spaces for players to study or work on assignments between practices while on the road and been on the bus with the team when it rolled into a campus parking lot at 2 a.m. after an out-of-town game. And yes, she was the one texting some of the players as they got off the bus to remind them of a tutoring session at 8 a.m. that morning.

Caballero loves her job. When asked where the passion comes from she says, “The students. They work so hard. It didn’t really hit me until I went on that first trip. How could I not match that intensity? I want them to know, ‘I’m just as committed to this as you are.’”

Collaboration is the secret sauce that makes it all work

That commitment to the student-athlete starts long before the student enrolls at FIU. Bejar, for instance, meets personally with as many of the parents and recruits as she can. When asked if it’s typical for a senior university leader to meet with recruits, Bejar says she doesn’t know. Nor does she care.

“I do what I think is right. We are asking these recruits to commit their time and their talent to us, which is not entirely understood at the university,” she says, “so the ability to meet a student-athlete and recruit at the highest level from an academic perspective to ensure that academics is at the forefront of this partnership is helping our coaches be more successful in their recruiting endeavors.”

The meetings are a hit with the parents. “The reality is that most student-athletes don’t go pro, so the parents are very interested in what the university’s opportunities are for their students to engage academically,” Bejar says. “They ask questions about majors and disciplines and career outcomes. Because I’m familiar with the broader landscape, I speak to the value proposition of FIU.

“This entire process is collaborative,” continues Bejar. “And we’re doing it better than we ever have before. It’s not athletics versus academics, which does exist at other institutions. So the coaches are there, the academic advisors are there, the academic coordinators are there. We’re working in tandem toward the same goal, the academic success of our student-athletes.”

Swimming and diving head coach Randy Horner, whose team has won the last four Conference USA Championships, is all-in. In June 2018, nine of his student-athletes were named to the 2018 College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association of America Scholar All-America Team.

“Very few swimmers go pro. They are here to get a degree, and this new model has been a successful approach to taking care of business,” says Horner. “We’ve gotten across the message that they can be successful on their own, and that’s a really important message to deliver.”