By David Pickle
A moment at January’s Division II Presidents and Chancellors Summit illustrated the complexities and emotions surrounding possible revisions to Division II progress-toward-degree requirements.
Part of the Academic Task Force presentation included a concept that would require student-athletes to complete 27 semester hours or 40 quarter hours each year to be academically eligible.
When the time came for questions, one president, clearly concerned, asked, “So a student-athlete who completes 24 hours each year and graduates in five years would never be eligible?” When the answer was affirmative, he pointedly said, “That’s wrong.”
The membership ultimately will determine whether the decision ends up being 27 hours a year or something else, but that president’s response revealed the strong feelings that surround the topic. Everybody agrees that graduation is the goal, but the potential sticking point involves the level of demands that should be placed on at-risk student-athletes participating in one of the most time-demanding extracurricular activities on campus.
For sure, the progress-toward-degree recommendation the Academic Task Force will share at conference meetings this spring provides more horsepower than the current model. But Brenda Cates, faculty athletics representative at Mount Olive, said that’s to be expected considering the charge of the task force.
“The initiative is called ‘Path to Graduation,’ ” she said. “It’s not called ‘Path to Eligibility,’ ”
The progress-toward-degree recommendation addresses four categories:
The concepts are easy to understand, which is important. A previous iteration featured varying requirements within some of the columns, which could have veered the debate away from academics and toward difficulty of administration. That simplicity is undoubtedly a plus considering how much weight the progress-toward-degree standards bear in determining whether student-athletes graduate.
The approaches described in Columns 1 and 4 appear to have broad support. “Good academic standing” is widely regarded as the purview of the institution, and feedback at 2013 Convention education sessions indicated buy-in for the ongoing 2.0 GPA requirement shown in Column No. 4.
Student-athletes currently are required to post at least a 1.8 GPA after 24 hours, 1.9 after 48 hours, and a 2.0 thereafter. Cates said the task force explored various models, including remaining with the current rule, but the group discovered that many members already had 2.0 as their institutional policy for good academic standing. Rather than disadvantaging those schools, the recommendation was to lift the standard for others. “The 2.0 came across loud and clear from the membership as the preferred GPA standard across the board,” Cates said.
That left the thornier questions: How much credit to require for each year and how much credit to require for each term.
The existing rule is complicated. It requires student-athletes to be in good academic standing and to have achieved six hours of degree-applicable credit from the preceding regular full-time term. Further (here’s where it gets tricky), it calls for 24 semester or 36 quarter hours of academic credit since the beginning of the fall term or the institution’s previous regular two semesters (or three quarters) OR an average of 12 hours per student per term of attendance, no more than 25 percent of which could be earned in the summer.
At its core, the current rule is based on a five- to six-year plan, hence the contention that 24 hours a year could be considered appropriate (5 x 24 = 120 hours, which is the traditional graduation standard).
But Nebraska-Kearney Chancellor Doug Kristensen said times are changing. He cited pressure from boards, the public and policy-makers to educate more efficiently and in the best interests of students.
“It’s not in the students’ best interests to spend six years in college,” he said. “It’s in their best interests to get out as soon as they can with a valuable degree that doesn’t have a lot of debt attached to it.”
Pat O’Brien, president of West Texas A&M and Division II Presidents Council chair, also noted that institutions themselves have a financial interest in an expedited process since the proportion of students entering the university who finish “on-time” could impact the university’s revenues.
“One, states are increasing tying a portion of a public university’s appropriation to persistence and graduation rates,” he said. “Those institutions with higher persistence and graduation rates, holding all other factors constant, are provided higher levels of funding than are those institutions with lower persistence and graduation rates.
“Two, components of the rating often utilized to rank universities are persistence and graduation rates. The higher the rates, holding all other factors constant, the higher the ranking and, presumably, the easier it is to recruit students.”
Cates said the federal government is also pushing the accelerator.
“Some of the federal guidelines for financial aid have come into play for our students,” she said, “and our student-athletes are becoming more concerned, too, about losing their financial aid if they don’t finish on time.”
While modern financial realities undoubtedly add a dimension to the discussion, proponents of change are most persuaded by data that reveal the credit-taking behavior of academically successful student-athletes.
Note: 2006-11 APC freshman cohorts retained to year two (N=99,689), except *2006 freshman cohort only (N=14,790).
Nobody supports an annual standard of less than 24 hours, and with good reason. The Academic Performance Census shows only 44 percent of Year One student-athletes in that cohort have graduated or are on track to graduate six years after enrolling.
For those between 24 and 26.9 hours in the first year, the percentage leaps all the way to 78 percent, which roughly correlates with Division II’s current Academic Success Rate of 72 percent. However, those who complete between 27 and 29.9 hours in Year 1 are known or likely graduates 92 percent of the time.
The current rule allows “averaging” at the beginning of each fall term, which means that if a student-athlete earned 27 hours as a freshman and 21 as a sophomore, he or she would be eligible in the junior year, having completed an average of 24 hours each year. That provision would disappear in the new model based on the belief that steady, annual progress is a major factor in the path to graduation.
“If you can’t pass more than 24 hours of credit in a year, and that includes summer school, your chances of making it aren’t real good anyway,” Kristensen said.
The recommendation also would deregulate the amount of credit student-athletes could earn in summer school; the only restriction is that summer-school hours could not be used to satisfy regular-session term-by-term requirements.
The term-by-term standard is the linchpin to the task force’s progress-toward-degree recommendation. The group believes the current rule, at least six hours in the preceding regular term, is insufficient. Not only that, members cite research-based evidence that a nine-hour requirement contributes greatly to graduation.
“To me, that is one of the most staggering differences,” Cates said.
The numbers showed that for APC data collected since 2006, for student-athletes in Year One who had at least one term in which they completed fewer than nine hours, the known or likely graduation rate was a meager 42 percent.
“But for those students in Year One who had no terms with less than nine hours, the graduates or likely graduates after Year Six rose to 91 percent. So you’re looking at a difference of 42 percent vs. 91 percent.”
Note: 2006-11 fall APC cohorts; analyses include only student-athletes who were present in the fall term of a given year and were retained through the end of the academic year. * Academic Success Rate definition; quit while eligible = likely graduation.
The good news is that most student-athletes already meet that standard, said Kentucky State Athletics Director Denisha Hendricks.
“At Kentucky State, we did a pilot program of the nine-hour credit requirement, and we had only one person who did not do that out of a little more than 200 student-athletes,” said Hendricks, a member of the task force. “So I definitely think it’s achievable.”
While a 27-hour annual requirement isn’t a tremendous change from 24 and while most student-athletes currently are meeting the nine-hour standard, the modification would collectively represent a meaningful increase. That means the proposed standard − which also includes the current rule’s proviso to designate a degree after the sophomore year, with all credit thereafter applying to that degree program − must be supported by well-designed initial-eligibility and two-year college transfer requirements that increase the likelihood that incoming student-athletes can do the work.
“What we don’t want to see is our retention rates dropping because we have student-athletes who can’t rise to that challenge,” Cates said, “and I don’t think we will.”
Whatever direction the debate takes, Kristensen is unsympathetic to the notion that student-athletes will not have enough time to meet the new academic requirements because of their myriad athletics responsibilities.
“From my perspective, they are students first, and academics do come first,” he said. “We’re not there just to allow them the opportunity to participate in athletics. We want them to have a college degree. We know from the data the path to success, and we also know the path to being unsuccessful. And we’re trying to draw that line a little brighter and make sure the students understand that.
“But it doesn’t do us any good to sink a lot of time and effort and resources into students who we know are at major risk. We could spend those with other students, and they could have a successful academic experience and be a good participant in college athletics.”