By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
The Committee on Academic Performance − having considered feedback from the membership, constituent groups and the presidents on the Division I Board of Directors − continues to examine initial-eligibility requirements adopted in October 2011.
The ongoing review seeks to find the best balance between enhanced college academic performance for student-athletes with ensured access to college for prospective student-athletes.
The committee meets later this month to continue its discussion of the initial-eligibility standards, and members plan to have a recommendation to the Board of Directors by its May meeting.
The academic enhancements adopted in recent years were numerous:
The changes are all designed to improve the graduation rates for student-athletes, while still allowing for maximum access for underrepresented populations. The most recent Graduation Success Rate data show student-athletes who entered school between 2002 and 2005 graduated within six years at about an 80 percent rate. This is the highest overall GSR on record, and yet the committee has noted that some sports continue to lag.
Hartford President Walter Harrison, chair of the Committee on Academic Performance, said the committee continues to support changes to the initial-eligibility requirements and the creation of what is essentially an “academic redshirt year” for freshmen who need extra time to acclimate to collegiate academic expectations. At the same time, he said the group is listening to concerns from the membership – including university presidents – that the increase of the sliding scale was too dramatic, might not have the intended impact, or should be implemented on a slower timeline.
Shannon Strahl, associate athletics director for compliance at Gonzaga, said her institution favors a more measured approach to the various academic standard enhancements.
“We certainly need to focus on academics, not just at the collegiate level, but at the high school level, too,” she said. “We need to think about whether we can accomplish that with a meaningful intermediate step and a commitment to look at it again when we see the impact of other changes we are making.”
Strahl’s proposal was one the Board of Directors also espoused when Harrison discussed the issue with that group in January. Harrison said he believes a longer timeline or a more relaxed sliding scale could be beneficial to prospective student-athletes.
“We’re looking for more time to reach the same level, but we want to do it in a realistic way that will allow our institutions and high schools a real amount of time to get ready for it,” Harrison said.
Donna Heinel, senior associate athletics director at Southern California, said she would also favor a more step-by-step approach to new academic requirements.
“What do we want to accomplish?” she asked. “The GSR is already moving upward. We’ve got a lot of changes to academic requirements: the 930 APR for championships, the (core course progression) requirement, the 2.3 GPA requirement. If things work, how will we know what was the final analysis. What (change) was the most successful? If it doesn’t work, do we have to throw it all out?”
Heinel and Strahl’s concern about making too many changes at once is taken seriously by Harrison and others. Additionally, Harrison mentioned he’d heard some uncertainty about whether coaches will actually offer scholarships to players who will not compete in the first year for academic reasons. While he said he didn’t want to predict what might happen based on rules that weren’t yet in place, he believes the concern is sincere.
“Some people also are concerned about the (potential) racial disparity,” he said. “That’s an important thing for us to consider and discuss. Many people, and I would include myself, feel that the most important thing we are doing for students of color and students from poor economic circumstances is provide them an access to a college education. This (model) preserves that, and it preserves the opportunity to play for four years once you are ready for the requirements of being a college student.”
Graduation rates of African-American student-athletes have increased by 2 percent since the last sliding scale change in 2003, when the test score cut-point was removed. Additionally, there are several hundred more African-Americans in the system than were there before the change. Taken together, these increases led to about 500 more African-American graduates per year. These were intended consequences of the rules that came into place in 2003, and much of the success can likely be attributed to the enhanced requirements for incoming student-athletes.
According to current data, the enhanced requirements will have the most impact in football and men’s basketball, the two sports that consistently lag behind the others in academic performance. Harrison said that while those sports have improved significantly, a “measurable gap” still exists between those and other sports. He and others on the committee anticipate that enhancing the initial-eligibility requirements could make a real impact on graduation rates in those sports.
“Our approach will be to take a look at it again, but the Board gave us the direction of ‘full speed ahead with what you are attempting to accomplish, but perhaps look at phasing in some of these requirements,’ ” Harrison said. “We’ve always felt we need to give people a lot of advance time ... We’re having a very intense but reasonable and thoughtful discussion about what to do, in keeping with the NCAA’s tradition of being an academics-first organization.”