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Classroom comeback

How the NCAA Former Student-Athlete Degree Achievement Program opens doors for former college basketball players

Four years after attending her last college class, Shaquita Smith received a text message she couldn’t believe. She could go back for free.

A women’s basketball player from 2013 to 2015 at California State University, Bakersfield, Smith finished her playing career three courses short of receiving a bachelor’s degree. She stayed in California until 2017 before returning to her home state of New York, where she has worked a variety of jobs in nursing homes and hospitals to make ends meet. She had no intention of returning to college.

That was until CSU Bakersfield academic advisor Andrew Dickenson texted Smith about an opportunity available to her through the NCAA Former Student-Athlete Degree Achievement Program. Through it, she could finish her degree at zero cost to herself.

“I was, like, ‘I get to go back to school for free?’” Smith recalled. “Honestly, I wasn’t going to go back if I had to pay for it. I’m already in debt.”

Terrance Motley, who played men’s basketball from 2012 to 2014 at Sam Houston State, had a similar experience. He found out about the program through his former assistant coach, Chris Mudge. Finances kept Motley from finishing his degree earlier.

Motley exhausted his playing eligibility in 2014 just one course — biomechanics — away from his bachelor’s degree. Soon after, he had an opportunity to chase his dream of a professional basketball career.

Motley said it was difficult to leave so close to finishing his degree but added: “I still had that one class in the back of my mind, knowing I had to go back and finish it. I knew I was going to go back. It was just a matter of when.”

“When” became “How?”

Motley had the first of his three children in 2015. As his family grew, it became harder to rationalize paying more than $3,000 for the one class he needed to complete his degree. Then, Mudge reached out to him about the NCAA program.

“I was ecstatic about it that I didn’t have to come out of pocket,” Motley said. “That was my only reason for taking so long.”

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Smith and Motley are among a handful of the first people to use the NCAA Former Student-Athlete Degree Achievement Program, which became available Aug. 1, 2019. The program is part of broader legislation passed by the Division I Board of Directors in 2018 to provide more degree completion opportunities for former men’s and women’s basketball players. That requirement builds on the Division I Degree Completion Award Program, which was established in 1989 and has awarded over $30 million to more than 2,900 student-athletes from all sports. More than 90% of those student-athletes successfully completed their undergraduate degrees.

The core piece of the legislation passed in 2018 required Division I schools by fall 2019 to fund a degree completion program for former men’s and women’s basketball players who meet specified criteria. The legislation came in response to the Commission on College Basketball Report in 2017.

The board also established a fund to which limited-resource institutions can apply to receive finances for degree completion.

Smith and Motley, who finished their degrees in the 2019-20 academic year, hope others take advantage of the Former Student-Athlete Degree Achievement Program.

“It’d be silly for anyone not to use if you were in my position,” said Motley, who earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. “It keeps you from paying for classes. It’s definitely a great program. I encourage a lot more people to use it, if necessary.”

“If you ever get the opportunity to go back to school, take it,” said Smith, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in literary studies.

There were challenges to returning to school more than five years after their college experiences ended, but there also has been growth. And help from the places they can now call their alma maters.

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Smith said going back to school was difficult for a number of reasons, chief among them a learning disability she’s grown up with. She said the challenges it’s presented at times have left a ripple effect of frustration and even depression.

Basketball helped her through those low moments. The game and her team provided a community of support and motivation to push through challenging times. When she needed to take three classes to complete her degree the summer after her last season, however, she struggled without her sport and the support system it provided. Ultimately, she didn’t finish those three classes.

“I did not do well because I wasn’t into it,” she said. “It was really tough. But what is life without a challenge?”

Four years later, basketball brought Smith back to the classroom. Smith said a former teammate urged her to take advantage of the opportunity to return. That former teammate even opened up her home to Smith to live in while she finished.

CSU Bakersfield was very accommodating, Smith added. The athletics department provided a tutor, whom Smith worked with twice a week and described as the “GOAT,” short for Greatest of All Time. Smith also praised the overall help from CSU Bakersfield academic advisors like Dickenson and Melisa Medina Cruz.

“They made it so easy,” Smith said.

Motley’s story is a bit different. He’s still in a professional basketball career, paused by the COVID-19 pandemic when he was playing in Iceland. Once he heard about the NCAA Former Student-Athlete Degree Achievement Program, the timing seemed perfect to finish what he started. 

Still, it had been roughly six years since his last college class. Plus, he was now a husband and a father of three. He said the academic challenges he encountered in his return boiled down to “focus, time management and the will to want to finish.”

“Just having to get back in that mindset again after six years,” he added.

His biggest motivation?

“My kids, really,” Motley said. “Having kids and wanting them to have something to reach for.”

His parents also played a role.

“My parents said something … that before they die, they wanted to see me with a degree,” Motley said. “That stuck with me, as well.”

In terms of his successful return to the classroom, Motley credited his time at Sam Houston State and his coaches throughout his career. Even if their messages sank in a few years after he was done playing there, he’s thankful for what those people poured into him.

“They had people making sure we were in class, out of bed at a decent time to get ready for class. They made sure of stuff like that for a certain few, including myself. They took it serious,” he said. “I’ve matured a lot since then because I was able to look back, hindsight’s 20/20, and see what I could have done better while I was there.”

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Once Motley hangs his sneakers up for the last time, he plans to use his degree to open a gym and serve as a personal trainer. He also plans to pass along life advice to the younger generation of basketball players in a book someday. Part of it will center on the importance of taking academics as seriously as the game.

“If you can buckle down early … you’ll have more opportunities,” said Motley, who played at two junior colleges before finishing his career at Sam Houston State. “I had to take longer roads to get to where I am now.”

However long, those roads led Motley to a cap and gown. While he has yet to put them on, as the pandemic canceled in-person graduation ceremonies across the country, he’s still considering a future Sam Houston State ceremony once life returns to normal.

“It would be something to walk across the stage,” he said. 

Smith celebrated her graduation with friends in California before moving back to New York to start her career search. She’s considering several options, including becoming a corrections officer, police officer or basketball coach. She’s confident her opportunities will be more expansive and lucrative now that she has her bachelor’s degree. The process of earning it, she added, provided lifelong lessons worth even more.

“Always push through. Never give up. Don’t let anybody demise your dream. Don’t let anybody put it down or push it aside,” she said. “Just keep pushing forward. Stick to it. At the end, there’s always a goal. Stick to your goal. Keep pushing. That’s how I did it. Stick to it. Keep pushing. You hit them rough patches. You still have to keep going.”