How Women’s Tennis Gained a Path to Higher Education

Since 2013, the Women’s Tennis Benefits Association has formally supported an online education program that has helped top players go back to school. The big idea came from a member: Venus Willams.

The association that represents women’s tennis has built an entire program to support players who want to combine the rigors of the pro tennis circuit with higher education.  And the sport has Venus Williams to thank.

The tennis superstar, a mainstay of the pro circuit like her younger sister Serena, found herself off the court in 2011 as the result of an autoimmune disorder and decided to take an online college course to improve her business skills. At the time, virtual degrees were new, but she found a school that was ready to work around her busy schedule.

She enjoyed the experience so much that she suggested the Women’s Tennis Association work with the school, Indiana University East, on a full-fledged program for other players. For IU East, it was a classic example of being in the right place at the right time.

“The story that was told to me by Venus Williams is that she had her associate’s degree and was looking to pursue a bachelor’s degree. She was looking around online and was impressed by what we were offering, and of course, the IU name was very important,” IU East Chancellor Kathy Cruz-Uribe told the Indianapolis Business Journal last year. “She applied and was accepted, and she had such a good experience, she saw a bigger vision for it.”

By 2013, the program, administered by the Women’s Tennis Benefits Association, was in full swing and now can claim nine well-known graduates, including Williams and Sloane Stephens. Eleven more are currently attending.

As The Wall Street Journal notes, in women’s tennis, players often turn pro before they have a chance to go to college—unlike many other sports that require an amateur component before allowing players to go pro. So when Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam singles winner, had a good experience at IU East, the association was quick to consider her idea.

“She started telling us how great a program it was, how the administrators and teachers were really working with her while she was playing to help complete her courses,” Lisa Grattan, WTBA’s executive director, told the Journal. “There’s a real interest in our athletes to further their education.”

Grattan said the program is designed so that IU East pays half the tuition, WTBA covers 25 percent, and the player pays 25 percent. The player’s portion is an investment in her own education—between $4,000 and $5,000 each year—and helps incentivize her to complete it.

“We wanted them to each have a stake in the game,” Grattan said.

Tennis star Venus Williams helped spearhead a successful WTBA program.(Edwin Martinez)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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