A New Year And New Eligibility Rules Bring New Problems

December 31st, 2015 | by Karen Gross
A New Year And New Eligibility Rules Bring New Problems

New Eligibility Rules

Some people almost laugh when you say the phrase “student-athlete.”  When the phrase “scholar-athlete” is used in its place, people are more than a tad bemused.  The expectation is that collegiate athletes, especially those in the helmet sports, are not interested in or engaged by academics; the reining perception of many is that higher education is only being used as an athlete’s pathway to the pros. These beliefs produce a stereotype with negative implications.

With great hoopla over the past several years, the NCAA has been instituting new eligibility rules: (a) for entering college students who play NCAA DI and DII sports starting in August 2016 (e.g. required courses in high school; minimum GPA in core courses; sliding scale for scoring on standardized tests); and (b) for those who are progressing through college (e.g. minimum team academic progress rules and graduation rates).  The NCAA, realizing the implementation challenges, has been subsidizing some of the financially constrained institutions for the latter requirement.

All of these efforts are designed to ensure that the “student” part of the phrase “student-athlete” has meaning for all students across the economic spectrum. The goal is laudable.

Sadly, I don’t think these requirements will work to achieve their desired end. There are many reasons for this conclusion including that some of the rules can be gamed, which is no shock.  Wealthier institutions with vast athletic staff and academic support programs can “play the game” better, leaving less well heeled institutions, many of which are HBCUs, out in the proverbial cold in terms of both new and existing students.  And, I am uncomfortable – very uncomfortable — with the role the NCAA will be playing in determining high school academic issues.  That should not be in their wheelhouse.

While there are many pieces to the NCAA’s rule changes, I want to focus on those involving new student-athlete eligibility for Division I athletics (New Eligibility Rules or NER for short), in part because they have yet to go into effect and will impact new college students enrolling in August 2016; also, there is the possibility of change — at least theoretically — before some students and colleges/universities are sorely damaged.  

Here are six of the main reasons why the New Eligibility Rules will not raise the academic bar and facilitate student success, particularly for vulnerable students. Moreover, the NER have not been thoroughly thought through and will not return luster to the words “student-athlete.”

1) The NER ignore that a high school diploma is not – even if all the NCAA requirements are met including with respect to core courses to which I will return – evidence of college readiness.  Sad but true. Indeed, the recent data showing improved high school graduation rates are not being celebrated because there is a sense that the students obtaining a diploma are neither college nor career ready.  The sliding scale provided by the NCAA does not give me needed comfort on this issue either.  Prospective athletes with a high school GPA of 2.75 could have a combined English/Math SAT score of 720.  

2) I am concerned about the impact of the new SAT scores, which will be for any student taking the test starting in March 2016.  I appreciate that a goodly number of recruited student-athletes will not face this issue as they are in regions of the country where the ACT testing is more prevalent than the SAT.  That said, there remain students who will take the new test, and the question is how will the new tests affect scores and the NCAA’s sliding scale?  Seems to me the jury is still out on this, and real data are two years down the pike.  

The NCAA has already noted that old and new scores cannot be combined, and although NCAA apparently sees no reason that the new test will affect eligibility outcomes, they recognize that the new SAT is testing different materials. I see issues here; so do others. Has anyone studied the literature on new tests, particularly for low-income students who do not have the same preparation access, despite free Kahn Academy tutorials?  Some are suggesting students’ forgoing the new test altogether and take the ACT instead.  And, frankly, since so many students in athletic regions already take the ACT, why not engage more students in a test that is at least tested?

New Eligibility Rules

A graphic from the NCAA’s new “Have a Seat” campaign. (via ncaa.org)

3) The NER are detailed and if the requirements are to be met, students and their institutions need to have started planning well before the senior or junior year in high school. Years ago in essence.  From my perspective, there are many schools where the needed level of academic counseling and monitoring is unavailable.  In established high schools with successful athletic histories or for students who are actively recruited, there may be capacity and help from outsiders; the same is true for private prep schools. But, for kids at inner city or small rural institutions who are not the highly sought recruits, meeting the requirements will be a challenge.  Some high schoolers are likely already ineligible, although neither they nor their parents  (nor their school for that matter) may know it.  

And for the record, most recruiting happens when it is too late to redo high school course selection and progression.

4) The core courses that count for NCAA eligibility can be accessed online by high school students or their families; students can enter the name of their high school to ascertain what courses count for meeting the core mandates.   To be candid, how would students know to review this list in 8th or 9th grade?   Who guides them to this list? Is this part of academic advising?  For real? What about the late blooming athlete?  My experiences with school counseling in certain settings are that the student-counselor ratio is so high (1 to 400 or more) that many students do not get real attention on academic or college progression issues.

New Eligibility Rules

The NCAA has set up an animated player to walk people through the school approval process. (via ncaa.org)

5) If there is no listing for a student’s school and I observed, for example, a missing listing for a Career Development Center in my region, that school must submit materials to the NCAA. Then apparently, the NCAA approves the core courses. This application process is complex.  What entering high schooler would even know to ask if there is a listing of NCAA courses and then, if that student and his/her parents note the absence of a list, how effective would they be in mobilizing their school to complete the needed documentation?  

6) As I interpret all this, it is the NCAA — which is not an academic association – the “A” is for “athletic” — that is determining academic matters. Looking at what is defined as “core” by the NCAA, I was struck by several things. The NCAA can decide that a computer science course counts as a math or science core depending on if there is sufficient programming.  Really?  That’s the criteria? Credit by exam courses do not count, although competency based learning is increasing used in colleges. Some ESL courses count – if key substantive material is taught in a language other than English or if the courses are for advanced English. How does the NCAA define “advanced” or “substantive”?

Bottom line, there is a vast difference between rules on paper in terms of goals and rules in action in terms of outcomes. The NER are fraught with issues, particularly for vulnerable students, for students who attend weak high schools and for those who do not have the money or knowledge to get help in the college admissions process. The NER could have adverse and unless I am being naive, unintended consequences: some portion of otherwise able low-income minority students will not be eligible to play collegiate DI sports. And, given how the NER are crafted, crafty folks can circumvent the NER for the benefit of some students.  

One of my wishes for 2016 is that we rethink the NER and study their possible disparate impact and allow for exceptions/waivers that do not require profound knowledge of the NCAA, buckets of money or savvy school counselors.  And, my corollary wish is for the NCAA personnel working on this eligibility effort to develop a vastly better understanding of how high schools work across our nation, most particularly with respect to advising, school counselors and academic progress for low-income students.

In the meanwhile, we need to ramp up efforts to help students who want to participate in DI athletics; they need a pathway to get there.  The “Have a Seat” campaign, designed for the NCAA by the well-known Leo Burnett agency, won’t do the trick in my estimation although the data could prove me wrong and that would be a good thing. Yes, the campaign is clever but it won’t solve the problem for many high schoolers and might even be viewed as offensive by some.  

Also, the campaign message troubles me.  Just look at the proposed images linked above. For starters, it sends a message that sitting on the bench is just plain bad.  For me, it depends on why one is sitting.  Poor grades is only one reason. Violating team conduct rules is another.  Not being an excellent player is another. Being a first year student is another, even if one is recruited. Next, is the only reason to get a 2.3 in core courses to get off the bench? Is there no other reason to do well academically?  What about pride in one’s ability or to project one’s interest and capacity in the subject?  

In my view, much needs to be done by August 2016 to help prospective DI athletes enter college and succeed while there. We don’t have time to waste.  So, let’s get going.


About Karen Gross
Karen Gross is the former President of Southern Vermont College, an NCAA DIII institution fielding 13 teams. She was the president of the college's Athletic Conference, the NECC. She also served on the NCAA DIII Presidents' Advisory Council. A lawyer by training, she represented an NFL quarterback (decades ago) and is a serious professional and college sports fan. She currently is senior counsel to a crisis management firm in DC where she specializes in education. A Red Sox fan, she knows a lot about losing and winning. Her son, now a professor, is a former NCAA Division I athlete.

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