By David Pickle
Few rules in the Division II Manual have had as much staying power as Bylaws 184.108.40.206, 220.127.116.11 and 18.104.22.168, the three initial-eligibility regulations that define academic qualifiers, partial qualifiers and nonqualifiers.
The rules trace all the way back to 1983 Proposal No. 48, usually known as Prop 48. More commonly perceived as a landmark Division I academic reform, Prop 48 also became the standard for Division II. The original rule required incoming freshman student-athletes to achieve at least a 700 SAT (or a 15 ACT) and at least a 2.0 grade-point average in at least 11 core courses.
Division I moved away from the Prop 48 standard at the 1992 Convention, electing to employ a sliding scale that required higher GPAs to offset lower test scores. Division II, however, did not change and is now into its 30th year with Prop 48 on the books.
A few alterations have appeared along the way. SAT recalibrated its scoring, so the 700 requirement became 820. The membership also changed the application of ACT scores, and Division II modified the core-course requirement (16 will be required starting in August, and no changes to that standard are contemplated).
But in general, since Prop 48 became effective in 1986, the Division II standard has been the same. A prospect who is a high school graduate and scores above 820 SAT/2.0 GPA in the requisite core courses is a qualifier. A prospect who meets either the GPA or test-score requirement (but not both) is a partial qualifier. One who does not meet either standard is a nonqualifier.
As its durability suggests, the rule – acting in concert with other legislation − has performed satisfactorily. The federal graduation-rate methodology has consistently demonstrated that Division II student-athletes graduate at a higher rate than the general student body (54 percent vs. 48 percent for the most recent report). And the Division II Academic Success Rate, which most observers agree presents a more accurate representation of academic outcomes, shows that 72 percent of Division II student-athletes graduate within six years of initial enrollment.
So, why is the Division II Academic Task Force recommending changes not only to initial-eligibility rules but also to those governing progress-toward-degree and two-year college transfers?
“Current research provides us with the opportunity to use data more effectively than in the past,” said Nebraska-Kearney Chancellor Doug Kristensen, a task force member.
Indeed, the lack of supporting data has been a historical vulnerability surrounding Prop 48. Research now shows some concerns were well-founded.
Division II’s Academic Performance Census demonstrates the Prop 48 approach yields a significant group of partial qualifiers who were near misses on the test-score requirement but who perform better academically than qualifiers whose GPA was just above the minimum. The data suggest that adjustments to initial-eligibility requirements could increase the proportion of Division II student-athletes who are known or likely graduates after six years while also promoting access to higher education.
“There are people who we are keeping out of competition who are graduating anyway, so we want to include them,” said task force member Denisha Hendricks, athletics director at Kentucky State. “If they’re graduating anyway, why not just make them qualifiers and make them eligible?”
Additionally, the data confirm what NCAA Division I research has always indicated: that grade-point average is the single greatest predictor of academic success. With that in mind, the task force is recommending a sliding scale keyed to a 2.2 core GPA for qualifiers and 2.0 for partial qualifiers. Any prospect whose scores fall below the partial-qualifier line would be considered a nonqualifier.
Here is how the scale would appear under the task force’s recommendation:
zQualifier: Above z=-1.25 sliding scale and 2.200 minimum GPA
Partial Qualifier: Above z=-1.5 sliding scale and 2.000 mininum GPA
The solid red line is the threshold for qualifiers. The dotted red line would define the floor for partial qualifiers, with any results between the two lines defining a partial qualifier. The green boxes show historical rates of eligibility after the first year from the Academic Performance Census, with dark green indicating first-year eligibility above 80 percent and the lighter green showing rates from 60 to 79 percent. The oval highlights a grouping of student-athletes with generally high first-year eligibility rates despite having been classified as partial qualifiers at the outset under the current rule.
The goal is not only to increase graduation but to maintain or enhance access to higher education. Ultimately, task force members believe the initial-eligibility proposal achieves that objective.
Note: Analysis includes first-time fall freshmen, 2006-11 APC cohorts (N=134,555), except * based on 2006 cohort only (N=20,091).
Data show that first-year eligibility would stay about the same or increase slightly under the sliding scale. However, the number of student-athletes from under-represented groups qualifying over six years would increase and the graduation pool (known or likely graduates after six years) is anticipated to increase.
Further, and very significantly, almost two-thirds of those moving from partial qualifier to qualifier under the task force’s recommendation would be ethnic minorities. That cohort would present much higher first-year GPAs (2.36) than those moving from qualifier to partial qualifier (2.05).
If a relatively small change has the potential to increase graduation a little, then might a more dramatic change result in dramatic improvements in graduation rates? In fact, because the outcomes below the 2.5 GPA line (see the light green boxes in the first chart) are so poor, some observers have suggested that the GPA baseline should be set at 2.5.
Brenda Cates, faculty athletics representative from Mount Olive and a member of the task force, said that although such a change would likely ensure much higher graduation rates, the cost would be too high.
“We did look at 2.5,” she said. “We looked at GPA-only models because the data do show that GPA is the primary predictor of college success. We looked at dozens of different models, including the 2.5 GPA, but it really increased the ineligibility rates for students of under-represented groups significantly.”
Ultimately, the recommended approach probably shouldn’t be viewed either as a liberalization or a greater restriction of standards. Prospects who should be qualifiers (as demonstrated through data) would be regarded as such, and those who are at risk would be identified and placed in an environment with more support and attention.
If members have concerns about how a change would affect their program, Hendricks advised them to run their own data. “If they take the time to look at their own numbers and see how that compares to what we’re talking about, they probably will be pleasantly surprised,” she said.
There is an acknowledgement that the task force’s initial-eligibility standard could complicate communication. For all of its flaws, the current rule is easy to describe. The proposal on the table would require visualization, but Cates said that’s not necessarily a problem.
First, Division I has been communicating a sliding scale for 20 years, so it’s clearly possible. Beyond that, though, Cates said communication could be enhanced because of recent changes in Division II recruiting contact rules.
“I think it ties in nicely with our recruiting packages that we’ve passed,” she said. “We’ll give the coaches a card that basically has it outlined, and they will have more opportunities to discuss it with prospects. If your GPA is between this and this, you need this for your SAT, and it’s pretty easy to communicate that.”
And time is on the side of communication. To ensure that all parties are properly educated, the changes wouldn’t take effect until Aug. 1, 2018. In other words, most of the prospects affected will begin high school in August 2014 or afterward.
Finally, although it wasn’t a determining factor in the recommendation, the change to a 2.2 minimum GPA for qualifiers would insulate Division II from an influx of prospects who fail to meet Division I’s new 2.3 GPA initial-eligibility requirement, which will become effective in 2016.
“I don’t think we want Division II to be the division of last resort, particularly when it comes to academic success,” Kristensen said.
That benefit notwithstanding, the reasoning behind the prospective change is Division II-based, he said.
“We need to live true to our standards of Life in the Balance, and that balance is between the athlete and academic success,” Kristensen said. “I think these proposals are a balanced, reasonable approach to academic success. That’s what I’m most interested in, and I think that’s what the public will hold us to.”