Every athlete at Murray State is met with two challenges upon starting their first season at Murray State: take home an OVC Championship ring and take home a diploma. As a result, the Racer athletes have had a GPA above the average of their non-athlete counterparts for six consecutive years, and for 11 of those 12 semesters have had an average GPA above 3.0.
Matt Kelly, senior associate athletic director and head of the student-athlete services staff, has been involved with the academic end of athletics for all six of those years.
Kelly was the first to point out that though the numbers are impressive, they couldn’t stand alone.
“You really have to quantify that, though, because registrar’s office really breaks that down,” Kelly said. “They’ll only compare apples versus apples. All student-athletes must be full-time degree-seeking traditional undergraduates, so they only compare to students who are also full-time degree-seeking traditional undergraduates. So they don’t include any part-time GPA’s or dual enrollment or graduate students.”
Kelly also pointed out several other factors that play into the Racers’ impressive average GPA, starting with Murray State’s number of athletes.
“It’s relatively rare for a Division I school, and for a fair number of reasons,” Kelly said. “I used to work at Florida State and they have over 800 athletes while here at Murray State we have a little less than 350. Obviously smaller population you have you can shift your GPA’s easier, but that also means that it’s easier to make them go way down, too.”
Perhaps a more sweeping reason Murray State athletes hold grades higher than those of other schools is simply a better approach to a system that all Division I schools use, he said.
“Just like every other Division I school, we have to run an academic enhancement program and an academic enhancement center,” Kelly said. “The difference is that most schools take every single freshman and every single athlete that has a GPA under a 2.5 and they lump them all together and tell them to come to study hall for two hours at night. They go from Thursday night to Sunday night and most of the time they have to go four out of those six days. To be honest with you, that’s just not the most successful way to do it. If you put a hundred people in a big room and tell them to be quiet and do your homework it’s not as effective.”
At Murray State, Kelly makes sure athletes get individualized attention, from one-on-one mentors to help students improve their study skills as they enter college to tutors who help athletes get a better grip on specific topics.
“At Murray State we probably have those same hundred people in our study program, but we individualize their study hall with each person,” Kelly said. “Our student athletes do the same 10 hours of study hall that every other student athlete does at every other Division I school in the country. The difference is that they’re not all in there at the same time. We have a steady flow of 10 to 15 students in our facility at all times, and when they’re there it’s only 15 instead of a hundred, so it’s quiet, productive and you never have to wait for a tutor. It’s just a more academic friendly environment.”
Kelly was quick to mention that departments across campus take the same approach to tutoring their students, providing one-on-one help and being widely available so that students nearly always get personalized attention.
“I’m not sure why our numbers are better,” Kelly said. “Sometimes I think it’s that athletes are just flat out competitive. It carries over. There’s a huge contest between women’s golf, women’s tennis and women’s soccer. If their team is just a little bit lower then they’re pissed until the next semester. Three years ago our women’s soccer team had a 3.64 team GPA for the entire year. They won an award from the American Soccer Coaches Association. They had the highest GPA of any women’s soccer team in the country that year. Women’s golf was mad. The following academic year the women’s golf team had over a 3.60, they beat the women’s soccer team and they had the third highest GPA of any women’s golf team in the country. So honestly I just think it’s that athletes are competitive and that’s across the board.”
Regardless of the high numbers, Kelly continues to demand excellence, both within an athlete’s sport as well as in their classrooms that defies the simple measurement of GPA and requires an athlete’s best possible attempt at everything they do .
“Our expectations are that if you are a champion then you are a champion at everything you do, and that means school, sports and citizenship,” Kelly said. “You can’t be a fantastic athlete and a really bad student. We recruit based on that balance. When we bring students here for that you meet with them and you set an expectation for what the best of their abilities and talents will allow them to do.
“Some students are going to work as hard as they possibly can and they may have a 2.6 that semester. If they gave their best effort, then we’re proud of that. Other students can have a 3.3 and I know that they were kind of lazy then I’m unhappy with that effort. I don’t expect every single student to be over a 3.0. The world just doesn’t work that way. We expect everyone to give their best effort.”