Dr Tracy Nicholson, Program Chair & Assistant Professor - School of Professional and Continuing Studies, University of Richmond

Tracy Nicholson has a master’s degree in Human Resource Development from George Washington University and a PhD in Public Affairs and Nonprofit Management from the University of Texas at Dallas. She started her career as an accountant with a major cigarette manufacturer and then sought roles as a human resource business partner in the public sector and higher education. In these roles, she leveraged her multidisciplinary skills in human resources, program management and workforce compliance and improvement. She began employment at the University of Richmond in the School of Professional and Continuing Studies during the pandemic and currently serves as program chair and Assistant Professor of the master’s in human resource management degree program.


Student-athletes are an integral part of the undergraduate student body more so in 4-year colleges and universities as opposed to graduate degree programs. This changed in 2019 when the National Collegiate Athletic Association, in response to the pandemic and its impact on the 2020-2021 season, granted undergraduate student-athletes the fifth year of eligibility to compete in various athletic sports contingent on their enrollment in a graduate degree program. This extra year of eligibility provided students with a gateway to obtain a graduate degree at select universities willing to accept them while on an athletic scholarship. In the university, we experienced increased student-athlete enrollments in professional and career-oriented degree programs, specifically the master’s and graduate certificate degree programs in human resource management. This article discusses the advantages of student-athletes obtaining graduate degrees in human resources and both the challenges and lessons learned for higher education in recruiting and retaining student-athletes into professional career-oriented degree programs.

The Opportunities

The opportunity to prepare student-athletes for human resource careers as managers and leaders in any organization, including athletics, was the major advantage that increased the human resource management programs’ student enrollment and graduation rates for the past two years starting in 2020. The program prior to the pandemic had few student-athletes enrolled. Next, the addition of student-athletes created a diverse classroom where working professionals and student-athletes shared different perspectives on human resource topics such as training and development and performance management, experienced both in the workplace and on the athletic field. The student-athletes brought a competitive spirit to the classroom environment and excelled in game-based learning strategies. Instructors used Kahoots, a digital- learning platform that creates quiz-style games students can play using a cell phone in class. The games-based learning strategies tested students’ knowledge of the class reading assignments and US human resource employment laws and employee relations. They were motivated to win so designing a competitive exercise engaged them to learn and outperform their teammates. One of the highlights of the program shows how many of the student-athletes were able to transfer their physical athletic skills and the mental focus used in sports to work on group projects and improve their communication skills, all critical skills needed by human resource professionals.

The Challenges

The first challenge was the struggle to adapt the graduate degree programs to conform to the one-year NCAA eligibility scholarship limit proved difficult for the student-athletes. The recommended course load per semester for working adults seeking a master’s degree is two graduate courses with degree completion in 1.5 or two years. The student-athletes were limited to one year to earn a master’s degree which required three courses per semester to receive financial aid. In most instances, the student-athletes balanced three courses each semester in addition to athletic workouts, scheduled games, travel time to the game and back to the school and team meetings. School advisors worked closely with each student-athlete to strategically plan a course schedule to ensure the athletes could graduate while financial aid was available. In most cases, the student-athletes enrolled in three classes per semester. Unfortunately, this course load proved to be stressful for the student-athletes and the instructors as well. In most instances, instructors granted late submissions of class assignments met with student-athletes for one-on-one coaching and in some instances allowed students additional time to make up work missed during major tournaments and athletic conferences after the semester ended.

Time management is often a problem for any working adult in a master’s degree program, but for student-athletes time management became problematic when group projects were assigned to non-student athletes. The student-athletes were balancing practices, weight training and travelling to games-thus leaving little time to contribute to a group project or team assignment. The instructors struggled to create teams of either all student-athletes or groups of diverse backgrounds to increase community building and learning among all students. Of special interest is student-athletes were outgoing, aggressive, highly engaged and competitive on the field, but in class, their demeanour was less expressive. Also noteworthy is the observation that student-athletes were hesitant to participate in class discussions due to their limited work experiences, fatigue, or concern for being viewed as less competent than adult students with work experience.

Lessons Learned

The increase in student-athletes enrolled in the human resource management professional degree program highlighted the need for athletic academic advisors, the human resource management program advisor and the program chair to collaborate to ensure athletes’ success. During the fall semester of 2020 one of the pitfalls noted was during the last two weeks of the semester student-athletes struggled to complete the more rigorous assignments which required more effort than undergraduate coursework. In response, a formalized student-athlete orientation was held at the beginning of the next fall semester to include student-athletes, coaches, assistant coaches, the human resource management academic advisor and the program chair. The orientation meeting explicitly reviewed and introduced the student-athletes to the requirements and expectations of graduate-level work, with student support services staff available to assist students in writing, public speaking, and other forms of academic support. In addition, instructors completed mid-semester grade reports and feedback on each athlete’s performance in class. The grade report sent to the program chair provides feedback on where the student-athlete needed more support from the instructor, athletic coaches, or the academic support team to address any deficiencies prior to the end of the semester.


As higher education faces falling enrollments, it is imperative educators continue to recruit and strive to retain and support diverse students in graduate professional degree programs, including student-athletes. Athlete tenacity and teamwork displayed on the athletic field are transferable to the classroom. As student-athletes enrol in professional degree programs, they learn knowledge and skills to cross the finish line to future leadership roles in the workplace.

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