Melanie Murphy, a guard on the Stanford women’s basketball team, received a full athletic scholarship in 2006 and planned to graduate in three years. She wanted to “move fast” and “keep options open.” But a season-ending knee injury suffered early in her sophomore year meant that if Murphy wanted to return to the court, she’d have to spend another year in school.
“I saw an opportunity to get my master’s degree in communication for free,” Murphy said. “Needless to say, I jumped on the chance and even thought about going for my second master’s degree in psychology.”
And with that same stroke of bad luck that tore her knee ligament, Murphy became a member of the rare group of athletes who are also pursuing their coterminal masters degrees.
Twenty-nine varsity student-athletes are currently taking advantage of Stanford’s unique coterminal program that allows students to simultaneously pursue a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree, according to Jim Young, senior assistant athletic director in communications and media relations.
There are about 800 varsity student-athletes among 6,940 total undergraduates, which means that more than one in 10 students is a varsity athlete. But not all consider a master’s program at Stanford, where all graduate programs rank in the nation’s top five.
“We encourage all our athletes to do the coterm program if they can,” said Beth Goode, senior associate athletic director in intercollegiate services. “But some of the undergraduate degrees take a lot of time, and the likelihood of fitting it all in is a lot tougher for others.”
Athletes who coterm represent a rare group. The 29 student-athletes currently coterming were either just accepted into the program and are completing their senior years or are in their fifth year nearing the completion of a graduate degree. They play on 16 different teams — among Stanford’s 35 Division I varsity sports — and are enrolled in 12 different master’s programs, from engineering to linguistics.
“I think having my bachelor’s in communication and my master’s in the communication field will help me in terms of credentials when I’m applying to jobs,” softball infielder Jenna Becerra ’12 said. “I used to want to be a professional softball player, but the league is very small. I figured since I have outside interests, I’ll probably be better off financially if I just go off my [Stanford] degrees.”
Many reasons surround the decision to coterm. Some, like Becerra, add a graduate degree to their resumes before entering the work force while others attempt to delay “the real world” by spending another year at Stanford. However, this second route is expensive.
A fifth year at Stanford purely as a graduate student means no financial aid from the University and tuition of about $50,000. Student athletes who play all four years and exhaust their eligibility — meaning they did not redshirt one year — are ineligible for a fifth year of athletic scholarship.
The Stanford Athletics Department receives applications requesting financial aid for a fifth year and awards about 20 student athletes each year with some percentage of a scholarship.
“Our priority in allocating the limited funding we have is in getting that first undergraduate degree so we’ll help those students first,” Goode said. “If we can help student-athletes beyond that as it relates to finishing a coterm or getting a second major or finishing a minor, then we’ll try to help as much as we can. But it’s all based on our budget and what the requests are in a given year.”
The situation was different for Stanford football long snapper Andrew Fowler, a sixth year senior graduating with a master’s in management science and engineering and a bachelor’s in art history with a minor in economics. The redshirt senior transferred from Williams College after his freshman year without a promise for a spot on the football team or hope for an athletic scholarship or University financial aid.
“It took a while to get but finally this year — my senior year and last year of football — they offered me a scholarship because I earned the starting long snapper job,” Fowler said. “So I’m very thankful for my parents for supporting me all those other years.”
Money can be a deal breaker, but it does not deter some student-athletes from pursuing a master’s degree. Where there is an academic commitment, there is a way.
Each master’s department determines the policies and procedures of its application process. In addition to grade point average requirements, some departments collect Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores while others specify that the student must be pre-approved by a tenured professor who will act as graduate advisor.
The University requires a coterminal program to total at least 45 units on top of the total 180 undergraduate units.
Of the 29 current coterm athletes, five are on the men’s volleyball team, the most from any sport.
“We have a study area when we travel,” said John Kosty, head coach of men’s volleyball. “Last year, our average team GPA was a 3.4, and we’ve won five consecutive NCAA Collegiate Men’s Team Academic awards [given by the American Volleyball Coaches Association]. All of those teams, including the 2010 national championship team, were over a 3.4 GPA.”
Evan Barry, the team’s starting setter, is a senior coterm earning a master’s in management science and engineering. He will try out this summer for professional teams in Europe. Since he began the coterm program, Barry can take a leave of absence for up to two years — giving him enough time to play in Europe and come back to finish his graduate degree.
Barry learned from Stanford teammates before him.
“Evan Romero and Cameron Christoffers both cotermed in management science and engineering, stayed a fifth year without any volleyball commitments and had a good time,” Barry said. “I wanted to do that, too, and having them as role models was helpful for my decision.”
Dreams of becoming a professional athlete have not deterred student-athletes from obtaining a graduate degree. Some have done both. The choice then becomes which one happens first.
Romero chose to finish his graduate degree before playing volleyball professionally in Switzerland.
“Getting my coterm was actually Plan A,” Romero said. “I knew all along I’d want a master’s degree when I started Stanford. If anything, playing abroad for a year or two was the ‘hopeful plan’ that just happened to work out. When I’m done playing, the additional studies and extra credential will hopefully help me with the next step.”