Sedlacek, W. E., & Adams-Gaston, J. (1992). Predicting the academic success of student-athletes using SAT and noncognitive variables. Journal of Counseling and Development 70, 724-727.


Predicting the Academic Success of Student-Athletes
Using SAT and Noncognitive Variables

William E. Sedlacek
Counseling Center
Javaune Adams-Gaston
Intercollegiate Athletics
University of Maryland, College Park

Noncognitive variables were better predictors than SAT of grades for athletes. It is suggested that athletes be considered as nontraditional students rather than "student-athletes." William E. Sedlacek
Counseling Center
Javaune Adams-Gaston
Intercollegiate Athletics
University of Maryland, College Park

The admission of student-athletes to U.S. colleges and universities has been the subject of increased attention and heated debate in recent years. The controversy has moved from admissions offices and campus units to the public press. Much of the attention has been focused on the two National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) propositions that limit participation of male student-athletes in their first year (Proposition 48) and their ability to receive financial aid (Proposition 42) based on their SAT or ACT scores. Many have expressed additional concern because of the potentially even greater negative consequences for Black student-athletes than White student-athletes (Roper & McKenzie, 1989).

Unfortunately there has been more talk than research on predicting the success of student-athletes. However, one can begin the search for answers with admissions research in general, and Black student admissions research in particular.

Standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT have been shown to correlate fairly well with freshman grades for White students in general but have had lower correlations for nonwhite and nontraditional students (Sedlacek, 1987, 1989; Tracey & Sedlacek, 1984, 1985,1987, 1988, 1989; White & Sedlacek, 1986). This is not a surprising conclusion in that tests such as the SAT were normed on samples of traditional White students (Angoff & Dyer, 1971). One possible reason for the lower correlations for nontraditional students might be found in Sternberg's work on intelligence.

Sternberg (1985, 1986) suggests that there are three types of intelligence. Componential intelligence is the ability to interpret information in a hierarchical and taxonomic fashion in a well defined and unchanging context. People who do well on standardized tests such as the SAT have this type of intelligence. Experiential intelligence involves the ability to interpret information in a changing context; to be creative. Standardized tests do not measure this type of intelliegence according to Sternberg. Sternberg's third type of intelligence, he calls contextual, and has to do with the ability to adapt to a changing environment; the ability to handle and negotiate the system. Sternberg feels that standardized tests were never intended to, and apparently do not, measure experiential and contextual intelligence.

Nontraditional Students

Much evidence has been generated in recent years that the concept of traditionality may be a useful one to consider in making admissions or postmatriculation decisions about students (Sedlacek, 1977, 1987, 1989). To the extent that nontraditional students have not had the experience of typical middle or upper-middle class White students in the education system, we likely need to assess these nontraditional experiences to be able to make more accurate predictions and be fair to those students.

A list of noncognitive variables measured by the Noncognitive Questionnaire (NCQ) is shown in Table 1 (Tracey & Sedlacek, 1984). These eight variables have been shown to predict the success of nontraditional students in higher education including freshman grades, upper-class grades, retention, and graduation. Nontraditional students have included U.S. minority students and international students at many levels in higher education (Bandalos & Sedlacek, 1989; Boyer & Sedlacek, 1988; Sedlacek, 1977, 1987, 1989; Sedlacek & Brooks, 1976; Sedlacek & Prieto, 1982, 1990; Tracey & Sedlacek, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989; Westbrook & Sedlacek, 1988; White & Sedlacek, 1986). The set of variables appears to have validity because it assesses Sternberg's experiential and contextual types of intelligence.

Insert Table 1 About Here

The NCQ consists of 29 items which are multiple choice, Likert or open-ended in nature. Open ended items must be rated and summed with scores on other items.

Athletes as Nontraditional Students

It might be useful to conceptualize student-athletes as nontraditional students. Athletes appear to have a rather unique culture and set of experiences in life that differentiates them from others (Sowa & Gressard, 1983). They tend to spend a great deal of time together and often have common goals and values generated by their experiences as athletes. They also tend to receive prejudice and discrimination much like "minority" cultures. For instance, Engstrom and Sedlacek (1989) report that students and faculty tend to have negative stereotypes of student athletes.

Since noncognitive variables have been shown to predict success for nontraditional students, and student-athletes might be considered nontraditional, it appears useful to compare the SAT and a measure of noncognitive variables in their ability to predict the academic success of student athletes.


All the incoming freshman athletes (N=105) at a large eastern university with an NCAA Division I Athletic program completed the Noncognitive Questionnaire (NCQ) along with a general demographic and attitude questionnaire at their initial fall orientation. The orientation was conducted by athletic department staff and attendance was required. The NCQ measures the variables shown in Table 1 with prior estimates of the test-retest reliability ranging from .70 to .94 with a median of .85, (see Table 1). The NCQ has validity in predicting grades, retention, and graduation for a variety of nontraditional students, as noted above. The sample was 64% male, 80% White, 15% Black, and 4% Hispanic and represented revenue (e.g., football, basketball) and nonrevenue (e.g,. tennis, swimming) sports.

The NCQ and SAT scores were used to predict first semester grades using step-wise multiple regression. The step-wise procedure allows a determination of the optimal order that predictors enter the equation.


Table 2 shows means and standard deviations of the SAT and GPA, and zero order correlations for SAT scores with grades. Table 3 shows means and standard deviations for the NCQ, and zero order correlatons for NCQ scores with grades. Cronbach alpha reliability estimates from the current study range from .73 to .90. SAT Math and SAT Verbal scores showed essentially zero correlations with first semester grades. As individual predictors, the NCQ scales of Strong Support Person, Positive Self-Concept, Realistic Self-Appraisal, and Community Involvement all had significant (p <.05) correlations with first semester grades.

Insert Tables 2 and 3 About Here

The student-athletes in the sample looked similar to norm groups of Black students on the NCQ, with highest scores on Leadership and Nontraditional Knowledge, and lowest scores on Handling Racism and Long Range Goals, with all NCQ means in an average range.

Table 4 shows that the three noncognitive variables, Strong Support Person, Community Involvement, and Positive Self-Concept, combined in predicting first semester grades (p < .05).

Insert Table 4 About Here


The results clearly demonstrate that the NCQ correlates with first semester grades for student-athletes and the SAT does not. There are many possible implications for student service professionals, educators, and administrators working with student-athletes.

First, SAT scores should not be used in selecting or predicting the early success of student-athletes. Propositions 48 and 42 cannot be implemented fairly using SAT scores if these results are at all true at other institutions. The school studied would be doing a great disservice to its student-athletes if the SAT were used to deny the right of any student-athlete to compete in the first year. The correlations of the NCQ and SAT with first semester grades are particularly interesting since the strength of the SAT should be in predicting first semester grades, whereas the strength of the NCQ is in predicting upper-class grades, retention, and graduation.

The particular scales of the NCQ that predicted best have to do with feeling confident about yourself, and having support from an individual and a community, and are worth further comment. Being a successful athlete has put many athletes in highly visible and difficult circumstances: successes and failures can be magnified, and are more apt to be noticed by many. It appears that student-athletes who have learned to succeed by looking to themselves as well as others (e.g., perhaps parents, teachers, coaches, and teammates) are the ones who succeed.

Postmatriculation programs that seek to provide support people, communities, either teammates or others on campus, and provide student-athletes with self-concept development, may be particularly fruitful in the first semester. As student-athletes progress in school, other noncognitive variables may become relatively more important, as is the case with studies on nontraditional students (see Tracey & Sedlacek, 1984, 1985, 1987). Longitudinal research should be conducted to observe these changing relationships over time.

Another implication of the results has to do with how we should perceive student-athletes. The word student-athlete itself has been promoted by many as a reminder that these people are students like everyone else who happens to be playing a sport. While well intended, such a view may be doing harm to student-athletes. The evidence from this study suggests that student-athletes look more like other nontraditonal students and may suffer from many of the problems and frustrations of a "minority group." Engstrom and Sedlacek (1989) provide evidence that there is prejudice against student-athletes, much like that directed toward Blacks, women, or other groups receiving discrimination.

Rather than thinking of athletes as traditional students in nontraditonal circumstances, it may be more meaningful to consider athletes as nontraditional students with their own culture and problems in relating to the larger system. There is some precedence for this view. Roper and Sedlacek (1988) discuss a course on racism in which students are encouraged to compare and contrast various "isms" (e.g., sexism, ageism); one of which is "athletism."

Programs for athletes could help them understand how they may be viewed by others and how to negotiate a system that was not designed for them (Sedlacek, 1988). Additionally, programs for non-athletes could emphasize reducing the prejudices and forms of "athletism" that are present in higher education. Methods of reducing such prejudices have been shown to be useful in classroom settings (Roper & Sedlacek, 1988), orientation programs (Sedlacek, Troy, & Chapman, 1976), workshops for professionals (Westbrook & Sedlacek, 1988), and through campus-wide and community activities (Sedlacek & Brooks, 1976).

There appear to be several implications for counselors in the results of this study. First, in approaching athletes it might be useful to appreciate the context of the athlete much like we would a culture for other students. The techniques we employ should consider the many sources of influence on the athlete from within and without the athlete culture. For instance, in considering vocational options it might be useful to take seriously and explore various athletic options, and career alternatives, along with more traditional choices. Understanding the athletes' world and how it "works" might be useful areas of study for counselors. Chartrand and Lent (1987) provide some useful insights for further study.

Counselors can also directly utilize scores on the NCQ to explore strengths and weaknesses of athlete clients to help them prepare for or survive in a college career. For example, helping athletes to learn to deal with prejudice because they are athletes could be an important role for counselors. Westbrook and Sedlacek (1988) have noted the possibility of working with clients to improve on the NCQ variables.

Possible Artifacts

A final point concerns the methodology employed in the study. We know that we tend to get lower correlations with samples of selected or enrolled students. If we were to have a sample of applicants to college or high school athletes, who may or may not be interested in college, and somehow have them begin college and receive grades, we would have a better estimate of the true correlation between the SAT, NCQ, and grades. Since this is not possible, we assume that selected samples have a more restricted range of scores, and our correlations are lower than they should be.

While this may be true for the SAT, since the school in this study requires at least minimum SAT scores, it may not be true for the NCQ, since there is no direct selection on that scale. Hence, it could be that the NCQ appears to correlate better with grades because it does not suffer from attenuated scores. That the NCQ has shown validity for a wide range of students in different settings provides some counter evidence, but this is an area that needs to be explored in future research.

There appears to be enough evidence in the popular press and in emerging research to suggest that we need to reevaluate our perspectives and programs for athletes in higher education. We need to do more than assume the athletic department is somehow handling problems that affect all student affairs professionals.


Angoff, W. H., & Dyer, H. S. (1971). The admissions testing program, pp 1-14 in The College Board Admissions Testing Program, W. H. Angoff (Ed.). Princeton: College Entrance Examination Board.

Bandalos, D., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1989). Predicting success of pharmacy students using traditional and nontraditional measures by race. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 53, 143-148.

Boyer, S. P., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1988). Noncognitive predictors of academic success for international students: A longitudinal study. Journal of College Student Development, 29, 218-222.

Chartrand, J. M., & Lent, R. W. (1987). Sports counseling: Enhancing the develoment of the student athlete. Journal of Counseling and Development, 66, 164-167.

Engstrom, C. M., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1989). Prejudice against student-athletes among university students. Presented at Maryland Student Affairs conference, February 17, 1989.

Roper, L. D., & McKenzie A. (1989). Academic advising: A developmental model for Black student-athletes. National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Journal, 26 (2), 91-98.

Roper, L. D., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1988). Student affairs professionals in academic roles: A course on racism. National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Journal, 26 (1), 27-32.

Sedlacek, W. E. (1977). Should higher education students be admitted differentially by race and sex? The evidence. Journal of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, 22 (1), 22-24.

Sedlacek, W. E. (1987). Blacks in White colleges and universities: Twenty years of research. Journal of College Student Personnel, 28, 484-495.

Sedlacek, W. E. (1988). Institutional racism and how to handle it. Health Pathways, 10 (9), 4-6.

Sedlacek, W. E. (1989). Noncognitive indicators of student success. Journal of College Admissions, 125 (1), 2-10.

Sedlacek, W. E., & Brooks, G. C., Jr. (1976). Racism in American education: A model for change. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, Inc.

Sedlacek, W. E., & Prieto, D. O. (1982). An evaluation of the Simulated Minority Admissions Exercise (SMAE). Journal of Medical Education, 57, 119-120.

Sedlacek, W. E., & Prieto, D. O. (1990). Predicting minority students' success in medical school. Academic Medicine, 3 (65), 161-166.

Sedlacek, W. E., Troy, W. G., & Chapman, T. H. (1976). An evaluation of three methods of racism-sexism training. Personnel and Guidance Journal, 55, 196-198.

Sowa, C. J., & Gressard, C. F. (1983). Athletic participation: It's relationship to student development. Journal of College Student Personnel, 24, 237-239.

Sternberg, R. J. (1985). Beyond IQ. London, England, Cambridge.

Sternberg, R. J. (1986). What would better intelligence tests look like? In Measures in the college admissions process (pp. 146-150). New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

Tracey, T. J., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1984). Noncognitive variables in predicting academic success by race. Measurement and Evaluation in Guidance, 16, 171-178.

Tracey, T. J., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1985). The relationship of noncognitive variables to academic success: A longitudinal comparison by race. Journal of College Student Personnel, 26, 405-410.

Tracey, T. J., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1987). Prediction of college graduation using noncognitive variables by race. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, 19, 177-184.

Tracey, T. J., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1988). A comparison of White and Black student academic success using noncognitive variables: A LISREL analysis. Research in Higher Education, 27, 333-348.

Tracey, T. J., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1989). Factor structure of the Non-cognitive Questionnaire-Revised across samples of Black and White college students. Educational and Psychological Measurement 49, 637-647.

Westbrook, F. D., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1988). Workshop on using noncognitive variables with minority students in higher education. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 13, 82-89.

White, T. J., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1986). Noncognitive predictors: Grades and retention of specially admitted students. Journal of College Admissions 3, (Spring), 20-23.


Information on the NCQ and scoring instructions can be obtained from William Sedlacek, Counseling Center, University of Maryland, College Park 20742.

Table 1

Noncognitive Admissions Variables

  1. POSITIVE SELF-CONCEPT OR CONFIDENCE (6 items).** Strong self-feeling, strength of character. Determination, independence.
  2. REALISTIC SELF-APPRAISAL (3 items), especially academic. Recognizes and accepts any deficiences and works hard at self-development. Recognizes need to broaden his/her individuality.
  3. UNDERSTANDS AND DEALS WITH RACISM (5 items). Realist based upon personal experience of racism. Is committed to fighting to improve existing system. Not submissive to existing wrongs, not hostile to society, nor a "cop-out." Able to handle racist system. Asserts school role to fight racism.
  4. PREFERS LONG-RANGE GOALS TO SHORT-TERM OR IMMEDIATE NEEDS (3 items). Able to respond to deferred gratification.
  5. AVAILABILITY OF STRONG SUPPORT PERSON (3 items) to whom to turn in crises.
  6. SUCCESSFUL LEADERSHIP EXPERIENCE (3 items) in any area pertinent to his/her background (gang leader, sports, noneducational groups, etc.)
  7. COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT (2 items). Has involvement in his/her cultural community.
  8. KNOWLEDGE ACQUIRED IN A FIELD (2 items). Unusual and/or culturally-related ways of obtaining information and demonstrating knowledge. Field itself may be non-traditional.

*From the Noncognitive Questionnaire (NCQ) (Tracey & Sedlacek, 1984)

**Number of items contributing to each scale

Table 2

Means, Standard Deviations and Zero Order Correlations of 

SAT Scores with First Semester Grades

Variable				Mean		SD		r with GPA*

SAT Math				520		84			.02

SAT Verbal				448		78			.05

First Semester GPA			2.28		.86

*neither r is significant beyond the .05 level

Table 3

Means, Standard Deviations and Zero Order Correlations 

of NCQ Scores with First Semester Grades

Variable	Reliability	Raw Scores		T Scores 				

		Mean	  SD	r	 Mean	 SD	r

Self-Concept	.94*	 .90** 19.10   2.11	.29***	4910	.28***

Realistic 	.84	 .82   9.81   1.89	.25***	5310	.26***


Understanding 	.83	 .77   18.41   2.22	.09	4710	.11


Long Range Goals .85	 .88    9.26   1.46	.14	4810	.13

Support Person	.90	 .90	13.67  1.73	.32***	5110	.30***

Leadership	.77	 .80	9.98   .57	.18	5910	.20

Community	.70	 .73	   5.56   1.19	.24***	6010	.26***

Nontraditional 	.79	 .77	   3.94    .78	.14	5910	.17


*	Test-retest estimates (see Tracey & Sedlacek 1984)

** 	Cronbach alpha estimates from current study

***	Significant beyond the .05 level

a	T score based on Black student norms in Tracey & Sedlacek (1984)

Table 4

Significant Predictors of First Semester Grades 

Using Step-wise Multiple Regression

Step			Variable		Raw Score R	T Score R

1			NCQ Support Person	   .29*		  .30*

2			NCQ Community		   .41*		  .40*

3			NCQ Self-Concept	   .43*		  .45*

*Significant beyond the .05 level