Ask Crystal Smith, a high school track and field athlete from Wisconsin,
about the benefits of athletics, and she will tell you that college would have
been unaffordable were it not for her ability to throw the discus.
“I could have never afforded the $40,000-a-year tuition to Wagner
College,” confirmed Smith’s mother, Cindy. A single mother dedicated to
her daughter’s future, Cindy said that her daughter’s ability to attend college
was entirely a result of her participation in track and field.
According to the Department of Education’s National
Center for Education Statistics, the average student loan
debt among college seniors was a little over $19,000 in
2004. Today, 42 percent of college students graduate more
than $25,000 in debt, according to the Center for American
Progress, and graduate school students have nearly
$46,000 in debt. Adding to the financial stress, one-third of
graduates have more than $5,000 in credit card debt by the
time they graduate. Crystal admitted that she rarely thought of college while in high
“Little focus was put on college, so I never realized how important
furthering my education could be,” she said.
Because Crystal excelled in discus, she earned a full scholarship to
Wagner College in Staten Island, New York. Smith is now a senior with
hopes of graduating on the horizon. After earning her bachelor’s degree in
chemistry with a concentration in biochemistry and minors in math and
biology, Crystal intends to earn a PhD in pharmacological sciences.
How many people in her hometown have a PhD in pharmacological
studies? She will be the first.
While undoubtedly inspiring, Smith’s story is certainly not unique.
Athletes who compete in Division I revenue sports like men’s basketball
also have been unsure of their path to getting an education. Jay Straight
grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes in the South Side of Chicago. During
this time, almost 100 percent of the housing development’s residents were
unemployed, and 40 percent of households were occupied by singlemothers
earning less than $5,000 each year.
Originally intended for eleven
thousand people, the homes’ number of occupants had expanded to nearly
three times that capacity. Gang violence and drug use were commonplace.
Fortunately, Straight was raised by his grandmother, who saw sports as
a way out of the impoverished life. From the time Straight was a young child,
his grandmother found opportunities for him to play, teaching him to ride
the bus across town to attend different basketball practices and clubs on his
By the time Straight graduated from high school, he was among the
best scorers in the country. Recruited by Notre Dame, Marquette, Boston
College, Iowa State, and St. Louis, Straight chose to attend the University of
Wyoming, graduating from college in three and one-half years.
Today, Straight is a professional basketball player who had a seat in the
EuroCup. He has played for teams in Israel, Croatia, Ukraine, France, and
“Not bad for a kid from the Robert Taylor Homes,” said Straight.
For kids like Smith and Straight, attending college is becoming more
and more of an obstacle, unless tuition costs are lessened by scholarships
and aid. The College Board, a non-profit membership association composed
of fifty-four hundred schools, colleges, universities, and educational organizations,
reports that despite an increase in tuition prices, federal student
aid is decreasing, making college seem out of reach for even children of
According to U.S. News & World Report, the average sticker price for a
typical four-year university is about $16,400 a year—which includes room
and board, tuition, books, and ancillaries. The year-to-year increase in
college tuition and fees is outpacing the general inflation rate.
Aggravating matters, the normal public university student now takes more than six
years to graduate, which means the average public college degree is close
to $100,000. But when compared to the student-athlete average scholarship/grantsin-
aid package of $12,850 per year for those who attend public schools and
$21,266 for student-athletes attending private colleges and universities,
these tuition prices become within reach.