University of Georgia student-athletes set an all-time record with an 87% graduation rate according to the annual NCAA Graduation Success Rate (GSR) released by the NCAA.
The record-setting rate is up from 84% recorded in 2018 and 2019. The 2020 rates are for freshmen entering in fall 2013 and the four-year cohort of the 2010-2013 freshmen (transfers are placed in a freshman cohort).
“This is a great tribute to the outstanding work being done by our 500 student-athletes,” said UGA J. Reid Parker Director of Athletics Greg McGarity. “But it also demonstrates the remarkable work that has been done by our entire academic support staff under the direction of current Deputy Athletic Director Magdi El Shahawy and former Deputy Athletic Director Ted White. The counselors, tutors, and student services staff spend countless hours every day, week, and month providing support and direction for our student-athletes. It’s truly a team effort.”
Five Georgia teams scored a perfect 100 on the GSR report: women’s golf, gymnastics, women’s swimming and diving, women’s tennis, and volleyball. Scores went up in seven sports, remained the same in six sports, and three sports recorded slight reductions.
“This outstanding report from the NCAA reflects the work being done by our students and academic support staff,” said Faculty Athletics Representative David Shipley. “It adds to our earlier positive academic news that our men and women student-athletes set another record with an overall grade point average of 3.16 for the 2019-20 academic year.”
Great accomplishments are seldom achieved alone. For Georgia’s student-athletes, the great accomplishment of earning a degree from the University of Georgia is very much a team effort.
Greg McGarity, Georgia’s J. Reid Parker Director of Athletics, said one of the highlights of his job is seeing “the outpouring of appreciation” that the student-athletes and their families have for the staff at the Rankin M. Smith, Sr. Student-Athlete Academic Center on graduation day.
“That’s their bowl game,” he said of the staff. “That’s when you really see the results of them watching someone come in as an immature freshman and grow to become a mature graduate ready to tackle the world.”
On Tuesday, the NCAA announced its annual Graduation Success Rate marks and the Bulldogs set a UGA Athletic Association record with a graduation rate of 87%, up from 84% in 2018 and 2019. Five Georgia teams had a 100% graduation rate: women’s golf, gymnastics, women’s swimming and diving, women’s tennis and volleyball.
The graduation rates are based on the number of full-time student-athletes who entered school, be they freshmen or transfers, on at least a partial scholarship and graduated from that school within six years. The 2020 numbers are based on freshmen that began college in 2010-2013.
“At the University of Georgia, we are committed to supporting the success of our student-athletes on the field of play but also—and more importantly—in the classroom and in life after graduation,” said UGA President Jere W. Morehead. “This exciting news reflects that commitment.”
“Improvement in all academic measurements is very important,” McGarity said, “and this is just a reflection of the time and effort and the dedication that our academic staff affords our objective of helping our young people graduate.”
Georgia’s Student Services department has 25 full-time staff members, led by Magdi El Shahawy, Deputy Athletic Director for Academics and Student Development. El Shahawy leads a group of 10 academic counselors, nine learning specialists, and five staff members that are part of the Georgia Way team working on personal development.
“The mission here is to help our student-athletes in their academic, personal and future career development,” El Shahawy said.
In addition to the full-time staff, El Shahawy said, each year Georgia hires more than 100 tutors and mentors to work with student-athletes. They are a mix of graduate students, some undergrads, as well as community members that may be retired school teachers or local professionals with a background tutoring various subjects.
Georgia’s counselors each have assigned teams they work with, making sure the student-athletes are registered in the classes they need, keeping them on a timely path toward graduation, and they monitor their Bulldogs’ academic progress in those classes.
The learning specialists serve as “academic coaches,” El Shahawy said, meeting with the academically at-risk student-athletes that might have had challenges in their previous academic history or a learning disability. The learning specialists meet with student-athletes to assess what their learning styles are, teach them techniques to improve their learning and their approach to academics, and they help them develop their cognitive skill sets.
“It’s a lot like coaching, just in the academic arena,” he said. “It’s a very coordinated effort between counselors, tutors, mentors and learning specialists in an individualized support program for student-athletes.”
The foundation for Georgia’s record-setting graduation rate that was announced Tuesday was established by El Shahawy’s predecessor, Ted White, who in 2018 left to become the Deputy Athletics Director at Virginia, as well as the staff that has worked in the Smith Center over the past decade.
“I think a lot of credit has to go back to Ted White, who was in that job. They made some changes in the approach under Ted’s leadership, and I think Magdi has carried it on incredibly well,” said Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Law David Shipley, Georgia’s Faculty Athletics Representative since 2010.
“We’ve seen steady improvement over the last decade. Every year we’re looking at the overall GPA, how the teams are doing, the GSR, the Academic Progress Rates — we monitor all that and we care about it. I think the administration cares about it and passes that along, very clearly, to the coaches. We want our student-athletes to be successful in the classroom.”
One of the keys to Georgia’s academic success over the past decade, said Shipley and El Shahawy, has been the continuity of the staff at the Smith Center. Of the 19 staff members working in academic services, many of them have been there for a decade or more.
Cory Kopaniasz, the Director of Academic Counseling, has been there since 2008. Beth Dziedzic, the Director of Academic Support, has been there since 2010. Lizz Bernstein, a learning specialist and coordinator of the writing center, who oversees the writing lab, has been working there for almost 20 years. Ashley Gresham, the director of the mathematics lab, has been at the Smith Center for 14 years. In addition, assistant directors Courtney Gay and Matt Grogan have been working with Bulldogs since 2012.
The support from these staff members, as well as that from many others, is reflected in the current graduation rates.
“When I talk about Cory and Beth,” El Shahawy said, “their institutional knowledge here as counselors and now leaders on our staff, that combination right there is critical because they triage communication between counselors and learning specialists and what the needs are to tailor an individualized support plan that helps people who are maybe struggling to succeed.”
El Shahawy came to Georgia in 2018 after a long stint at Southern California, and he’s been working in academic services for more than 25 years. As a relative newcomer to the Smith Center, he sees with fresh eyes the excellent staff and supportive environment Georgia has.
“I think there’s just a great culture here,” he said. “You’ve got great people. One of the things I lucked into is an office with great, talented individuals on staff.
“They all bring great chemistry, great skill sets and a great dynamic to the office, and a passion for helping mold young people into not just successful students but into future leaders of our society. That’s a big part of our mission.”
The outstanding work of Georgia’s student-athletes and staff was particularly evident in the spring when classes had to shift abruptly from in-person to online amid the Coronavirus pandemic. Despite the drastic disruption, Bulldog student-athletes turned in a 3.34 overall GPA for Spring semester, which is believed to be the best ever recorded.
“The hard work we see from obviously our student-athletes but also from the people at the Smith Center, Magdi and his crew, I think all the hard work has paid off,” Shipley said, adding, “I think it’s remarkable how well we’ve done. And I think we’ll continue to improve.”
Georgia’s student-athletes are high achievers on the field, in the pool, or wherever they compete, and they are high achievers in the classroom too. And they have a motivated and dedicated academic services staff helping them reach their goals from Day One.
“The staff at the Smith Center has been fabulous during this particular time, and even before then, before the pandemic,” McGarity said. “It’s a group of individuals that are selfless — their whole life is really dedicated to helping others be successful. It’s one of the most selfless areas, a selfless attitude is ever-present in the building.
“Your wins are watching young people graduate or achieve a GPA in a certain semester that perhaps they didn’t think they could achieve. They’ve got to be educators, they’ve got to be encouragers, they’ve got to be good listeners, and they’ve got to be brutally honest, because if our young people aren’t successful in the classroom, then they certainly won’t be successful in athletics.”