You might not notice an athlete in your class if it weren’t for their bright blue Powerade bottle, but they make up nearly 10% of Penn’s undergraduate student body. These 988 individuals train year-round to represent Penn to the best of their ability, both on the field and in the classroom, winning Olympic medals, earning All-American honors, securing teaching assistant positions, and making the honor roll. This success begins with a commitment to this University and its respective sports. In season, athletes spend over 25 hours a week at practice, competitions, weight training, film sessions, injury treatment, team meetings, and more.
Despite this strong commitment, support for student-athletes throughout Penn is inconsistent. Some professors attend games and allow required work to be made up when class conflicts with competitions. Others do not allow student-athletes to make up missed work that results from athletic competitions. This inconsistent support can be frustrating for student-athletes, especially when it hinders their academic success. Creating a standardized course absence policy would have an enormous impact on increasing the support student-athletes need to succeed on and off the field.
During Penn’s advance registration period, student-athletes must strategically rank classes to obtain a schedule that is accommodating of practice times, as NCAA bylaws mandate that no student-athlete can miss class for practice. Once schedules are finalized, athletes wait for the athletics department to release their game schedule and cross their fingers in hopes that there are no competitions that conflict with their classes. In the likely event that there is, an athlete must contact their professor, ask to be excused from class, and arrange to make up any in-class assignments, quizzes, or exams they would miss. As noted, some professors accommodate this conflict, but many do not. The result is student-athletes regularly calculating if they can afford to miss a quiz, using the syllabus’ permitted absences and hoping they don’t get sick at another time, or, worst of all, dropping the course.
To understand the true extent of this issue, last spring, I conducted a survey among seven Penn Athletics teams, gaining responses from roughly 30% of Penn’s student-athletes.
Over 60% of respondents had lost points in a class due to an athletic competition and 40% had dropped a course because the professor was not accommodating of their athletic competition.
Penn’s student-athletes feel passionately about this, driven by their past experiences. One survey respondent said, “I had to drop a class because a professor said the exam I was going to miss would be my dropped exam for that class by default, and then I wouldn’t have had any grades in the class before the drop deadline to know my standing in the class or what to expect with the exam style.” Another respondent explained their frustration well: “As an athlete, it’s already tough enough to make schedules without receiving any priority, so when we are able to make a schedule during our seasons, it is so tough to be penalized for something we are required to attend. Athletes really do the most to try and make it work on our end. I even took a test at 6 a.m. before a travel day. We would all really appreciate the University recognizing the work we put in during [the] season by declaring absences for sports competition as excused.”
When speaking to professors and faculty about this, I’m often faced with the rebuttal that sports are an optional extracurricular and shouldn’t be excused, just like job interviews or case competitions. Athletics is inherently different from other extracurriculars as it contributes to school spirit, entertainment, and donations in ways that other extracurriculars do not. In 2021, alumni donations through the Penn Champions Club raised over $241 million for competitive excellence, student-athlete experience, attracting talent, and campus engagement. Regardless, as student-athletes, we arrive at Penn with the expectation that we will not need to compromise academics for athletics, or vice versa, but instead receive the support needed to triumph in both. Being so, athletics should be viewed as an asset to the University and provide its participants with equal opportunities to succeed in academics.
Out of the seven other schools who compete in the Ivy League athletic conference, Columbia, Cornell, Princeton, and Yale all recognize athletic competitions as excused absences in some form. At Columbia, a schoolwide policy states that “student-athletes who miss classes and/or exams as a result of representing the University at an approved athletics contest may be permitted to make up the work and/or take the exam at another time or location.” At Cornell, its absence policy outlines that professors are encouraged to “respect the value of out-of-classroom learning that occurs through participation in varsity athletics and are expected to develop ways for course requirements to be met if and when there is a conflict with a student-athlete’s athletic schedule.” At Princeton, “Missed classes due to travel for University sanctioned competition are excused absences, but absence from class because of athletic competition does not excuse a student-athlete from any course requirements.” At Yale, “Dean’s Excuses may be issued to postpone exams, quizzes, and other generalized in-class assignments due to conflicts with varsity athletic competitions or travel.”
At Penn, this policy could arise in different ways. Ideally, Penn would require all professors to honor Course Absence Reports as excused absences. The list of excused absences would include religious observance, family emergencies such as death in the family, medical reasons, and participation in varsity athletic competitions. Alternatively, Penn could follow Yale’s model with an "Athletic Director’s Excuse." Student-athletes could request a document from their team’s athletic director, which would excuse their absence from class and allow student-athletes to postpone exams, quizzes, and other in-class assignments due to conflicts with athletic competitions or travel to and from competitions. In both situations, student-athletes would be required to make up any missed work in a timely manner.
Student-athletes are asking Penn for one thing: To excuse our absences from classes or exams due to sports competitions. We believe that we should not be punished for fulfilling our obligation to the University. It is time for Penn to join our Ivy League counterparts in creating an appropriate policy.
ROBIN PANZARELLA is a Wharton senior studying decision processes from Moorestown, NJ. Her email is email@example.com.