While many universities feel pressure to create new, “easier” majors for student athletes to remain eligible, Cal Poly shies away from such a practice.
“Some athletics is big business now, and you find ways around certain things, and we don’t do that here,” said Cal Poly Athletics’ director of academic services Shannon Stephens, who used to work in the same capacity at UCLA. “Part of the reason I enjoy being here is that the athletes are generally able to major in whatever they want to. At other schools it’s just not the case.”
Overall, the distribution of majors among Cal Poly athletes differs in two main areas when compared to the total student population: engineering and business administration.
One of Cal Poly’s most popular and well-known majors, engineering, made up 28 percent of the entire student population in the last academic year, but among athletes, only 10 percent.
On the contrary, the number of athletes in business was strikingly higher than the non-athlete population – 21 percent for athletes yet only 12.6 percent for the entire Cal Poly population.
Kristy McCray, Cal Poly Athletics’ academic advisor, attributes the disparity to the major’s competitive nature.
“I don’t think that students come into business because it’s more flexible, but I do think it’s a good major,” she said. “It gives athletes good background in business. They’re very competitive by nature. That nature goes well in the business field. . Business is competitive; social sciences is not.”
If you break that number down through individual teams, 33 percent of baseball players from last year’s roster and 18 percent of football players were in business administration.
“I think that business appeals to them because of the different concentrations within business, (such as) marketing and accounting,” Stephens said.
Business junior Gavin Cooper, a defensive lineman for the football team, said he always planned to major in business because it’s applicable to the real world. The department, he said, is especially flexible with the demanding practice and travel schedules particular to athletes.
“I’ve had trouble with teachers from other departments, but I haven’t had a bad experience with a single department overall,” Cooper added. “They understand that being an athlete is a double-job and they’ve been helpful.”
To help ensure a sports schedule doesn’t conflict with classes, Stephens said athletes get priority registration when their sport is in season.
“I think that’s kind of a little bit of a myth on campus among students and staff and faculty that all student athletes are on scholarship – a full scholarship – and that they get priority enrollment every term,” he said.
The only team that gets priority registration each quarter, he explained, is cross country, which competes year-round.
McCray offers guidance to athletes unsure in major choice and said kinesiology is commonly a “good fit” for athletes. Kinesiology was the second-most popular major, with almost 14 percent of 500 athletes in that area of study.
But that number is relatively low compared to behemoths like Michigan, where, the Ann Arbor (Mich.) News reported earlier this year, roughly 60 spots in kinesiology are reserved for incoming athletes each year.
“There’s a lot of schools with a general studies program where you basically take whatever classes you want and make a major out of it,” Stephens added.
In March, according to the Ann Arbor News, although less than 3 percent of Michigan’s 26,000 undergrads were athletes, they made up 49 percent of the 176 undergrads pursuing a general studies degree.
Cal Poly has no such safe harbor but does allow athletes to get certain units where other students can’t.
Stephens teaches a first-year seminar to incoming athletes, Education 125, which is a two-unit course. Athletes can also receive two units of credit for their sport, applicable for up to eight elective credits.
Auburn was accused of academic fraud in 2006 for directing athletes into sociology, which was heavy in independent-study programs.
Professor James Gundlach, director of the Auburn sociology department, alerted the New York Times to the issue when a sociology-major athlete he had never seen was awarded for academic excellence.
At the time, 10 of 38 Tigers football players majoring in sociology reportedly took all their classes from only one professor.
Perhaps one reason Cal Poly has not followed suit is because of the university’s unique admissions policies in the first place.
“The declaration of major upon entry really kind of lends itself to students trying to make an informed decision before they get here,” Stephens said. “At other schools, you go in undeclared and then you figure it out from there, but here it just isn’t that way.”
But because the university prides itself in academics, there is perhaps an athletic price to pay.
“Sometimes that’s hard to swallow, too, because sometimes that makes you a little less competitive athletically,” Stephens said. “Realistically, we can’t go out and recruit a kid that’s an outstanding athlete, but academically (troubled).”
As far as herding athletes into “easy” majors, Stephens said there’s no such thing at Cal Poly.
“I think there are some (majors) where the admissions requirements aren’t quite as great as others, but I wouldn’t consider any majors here ‘easy’ majors,” Stephens said.
Of course, choosing a major with easier admissions standards isn’t a phenomenon limited to the realm of athletics.
“There are certain majors here that are really impacted, so I can assume that if a student (athlete) wants to get into an impacted major but there’s less of a chance, that they would apply to a different major,” McCray said. “But that goes for every student, not just athletes.”