'Project Graduation' Helping Athletes Return to LSU

by Michael Bonnette (@LSUBonnette)
'Project Graduation' Helping Athletes Return to LSU

BATON ROUGE – LSU’s athletic success across all of its sports – men and women – has been well documented as the Tigers continue to have one of the premier programs in college athletics. Among its many achievements so far this year include placing third in the nation in gymnastics and men’s golf, winning a bowl game for the sixth time in nine years and advancing to the Sweet 16 in women’s basketball.

LSU’s athletic success wouldn’t be possible without its partnership with the Cox Communications Academic Center for Student-Athletes (CCACSA) where the mission is to challenge LSU student-athletes to achieve their highest level of intellectual and personal development.

The center’s ultimate goal is for every student-athlete that enrolls at LSU to leave with a college degree.  The academic success for LSU student-athletes has been on the rise since the inception of the Graduation Success Rate (GSR) in 2005. Most recently, LSU student-athletes produced an overall 81 percent GSR, which was an all-time high for the school, and an increase of 14 percent from 2005 when the university reported a GSR score of 67 percent. 

In spite of the efforts from the CCACSA, coaches and administrators, some student-athletes don’t leave LSU with a degree. “Project Graduation” gives a second chance to student-athletes who came up short in earning their degree their first time around.

”Our Project Graduation program provides a mechanism through which our former student-athletes can earn their LSU degrees,” Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Joe Alleva said. “We’re committed to giving these students the same level of assistance they received during their playing careers, and the results produced by the program have been outstanding. Through the combined efforts of the Academic Center staff and our coaches, we’re honoring our pledge to the students to provide the resources necessary to graduate from LSU.”

Under the direction of Kenneth Miles, who serves as vice chancellor and the executive director of the CCACSA, and academic advisor Jason Shaw, who now oversees the program, “Project Graduation” is already paying dividends. The program has produced 17 graduates over the past two years, including quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who earned his degree last month.

“The goal of “Project Graduation” is simple in that we make a commitment to assist those former student-athletes in obtaining a degree. And, that commitment is honored and promoted regardless of the length of time since they last stepped foot in a classroom,” Kenneth Miles said. “The program’s objective is accomplished by reaching out and providing information and assistance to former student-athletes with the help of several university departments including the Athletics Administration, Admissions and Senior Colleges.

“All of the related departments collaborate to provide former student-athletes with information regarding reapplying to the university, degree audits, health center requirements, financial aid assistance applications and contact information all while creating a positive environment consisting of full advisement and assistance services.”

Project Graduation doesn’t just focus on football. It’s spread across all sports. Since inception in the fall of 2010, 35 LSU student-athletes have taken advantage of “Project Graduation” and earned their college degree. Football leads the way with 18 “Project Graduation” alumni, followed by baseball with nine, track and field with four, women’s basketball with two, and women’s soccer and men’s basketball with one each.

Shaw said the program continues to grow and gain traction as the success stories have served as inspiration for others to follow.

“Seeing former student-athletes come through Project Graduation and finish their degree has been a big motivator for other individuals from all sports to come back and work towards graduation,” Shaw said. “We take pride in creating a welcoming atmosphere for those who return. It’s our goal to make the process as streamlined and straightforward as possible to minimize the anxiety of coming back to school. We want this to be fun and something the student-athletes enjoy because that type of experience will go a long way in making sure that they follow through and get that degree.”

Shaw said that “Project Graduation” is being used by LSU coaches in recruiting as a way to show that LSU supports professional opportunities by its student-athletes with the understanding that the university will be there to assist when the time comes for them to return to school.

“The goal for Project Graduation mirror that of the Cox Communications Academic Center for Student-Athletes,” Shaw said. “We want them to graduate, help prepare them for life after LSU, and promote and preserve academic integrity through education and example. 

“We make it a key point during our recruiting presentations that if an opportunity arises for them to pursue a professional opportunity, they have the ability to return to LSU and complete their degree with our full support and encouragement.”

Shaw said that with the support of coaches such as head football coach Les Miles along with Alleva and the university administration, the program continues to grow.

“Coach Miles and our other coaches have been extremely supportive and they are invested in the program,” Shaw said. “Project Graduation is part of our weekly academic meetings with our coaches. They want updates on how all of their student-athletes are doing, past and present. Coach Miles’ measure of success for his program is graduation and competing for championships, which ties directly into what we are doing with Project Graduation.”

Three former student-athletes earned their degree in May due to “Project Graduation” as Jefferson, track All-American Muna Lee, and baseball’s Johnny Dishon all finished their degree requirements. LSU is expected to add another three football players to the list over the summer as Terrence Toliver, Richard Murphy and Karnell Hatcher are all on pace to graduate in August.

As part of the on-going effort to continue to grow the program, Shaw has degree audits on every LSU football player from 2001 to 2013 who has not graduated in hopes that many of those will opt to return and finish their education.

“Our number one goal is to graduate our student-athletes,” Shaw said. “This program is a testament to the dedication and commitment to see our student-athletes finish what they started by the athletic administration, the university administration, our coaches and the academic center. We are fortunate to have this program in place and we are going to continue to do whatever we can to bring as many former student-athletes back to school in hopes that they can get their degree.”