NCAA Adopts Academic Requirement for Tournament-Bound Teams, Promises Quick Action on Other Key Changes

August 11, 2011

NCAA officials voted on Thursday to strengthen a key academic requirement for all Division I teams, and adopted a related policy calling for teams to hit that benchmark before competing in national championships.

Both measures are offshoots of a two-day retreat of 50 or so university presidents, who recommended that the Division I Board of Directors take swift action to toughen academic standards for college athletes.

Under the new policies, Division I teams will have to amass a four-year average academic-progress rate of 930 or greater, or else risk sanctions. (The current penalty threshold for the rate, which the NCAA uses to gauge athletes' progress toward their degrees, is 900.)

The new benchmark of 930, which equates to roughly a 50-percent graduation rate, would also serve as the cutoff for teams to take part in any NCAA-sponsored national championships. NCAA officials expressed hope that the new requirement would also apply to postseason competition for football teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, whose national championship is governed by the Bowl Championship Series, not the NCAA.

The postseason requirement has long been a cornerstone of reforms advocated by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which first recommended such a policy in a 2001 report.

Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford, said implementation of the new policies—especially the postseason requirement—would be gradual, over the course of several years, with details to be worked out in time for the board's next meeting, in October.

Other changes to the academic-progress rate include adopting a single-penalty format: Instead of the two-tiered approach in place for several years, with cutoffs of 900 and 925 for penalties of varying severity, 930 will be the only standard that matters.

"We're hoping to phase this in so all our institutions and coaches will have a chance to think about their particular circumstances and how they're going to improve their team APR's," said Mr. Harrison, who chairs the NCAA's Committee on Academic Performance, which monitors the academic-progress rates. He offered the details during an afternoon phone call with reporters.

In the seven years that the NCAA has been tracking the academic performance of athletes, the academic-progress rate and the penalties associated with it have often been the focus of criticism. Large, wealthy athletic programs with extensive academic-support services, critics say, are better equipped to help athletes succeed in the classroom. On Thursday, Mr. Harrison said that when crafting the guidelines, the committee would pay special attention to the new policies' effect on institutions with limited resources, especially those at historically black colleges and universities.

But on the championships requirement, he said, adherence to the 930 score is likely to be firm, with little room for reconsideration.

"The message I've been getting from the board is, Not too much leverage there," Mr. Harrison said. "If there's any appeal at all, it's going to be pretty tightly defined, and there may not be any."

Other Possible Changes

Another proposal the board is likely to consider in coming months is whether to allow athletic conferences to create their own policies permitting multiyear scholarships, or scholarships that would cover the full cost of attendance. While the presidents this week expressed "complete and unequivocal unanimity" that college athletes would never be paid, they also directed the board and NCAA staff to examine existing scholarship rules for possible improvements, said the NCAA's president, Mark A. Emmert.

"We agreed that Division I is a very big tent," said Edward J. Ray, president of Oregon State University and chair of the NCAA's executive committee. With annual budgets ranging from $5-million to $145-million, mandating associationwide rules governing scholarships could be unfair, he said. "Maybe one size doesn't fit all."

If the board does grant leagues flexibility on scholarship rules, academic expectations could be greater for those that choose to offer lengthier or more-robust scholarships, Mr. Emmert said.

Other matters the board could take up in October or in January would be proposals to:

  • Toughen academic standards for incoming athletes, both from high school and community colleges.
  • Expand the NCAA's definition of "agents" and "third parties," possibly to include family members who claim to "represent" prospective athletes.
  • Overhaul the association's lengthy rule book through "aggressive editing".
  • Strengthen the penalties associated with the most-serious violations of NCAA rules.

Repeating a phrase he has emphasized several times this week, Mr. Emmert said the board planned to take up these and other matters over a course of "months, not years." And he had bold predictions for an organization frequently faulted for its slow response to problems: "Those who say that we're incapable of moving quickly will be pleasantly surprised in the coming weeks and months."