Stop Lowering the Bar for College Athletes

Jonathan Twingley for The Chronicle

April 10, 2011

For nearly 50 years, the NCAA has debated its minimum academic requirements for first-year students who hope to compete in big-time college sports. In its various attempts to ensure an acceptable level of precollegiate learning and skill competencies, the NCAA has vacillated between lowering and raising entrance standards, seemingly unable to determine the correct balance. In its most recent set of reforms, in 2003, it established new standards for initial eligibility. Responding to charges of the disparate impact on minorities of standardized-exam requirements, the new rules afforded minority athletes greater access to higher education by creating a sliding scale for grade-point averages and standardized-test scores, while abandoning a minimum requirement of a composite 17 on the ACT or 820 on the SAT.

After more than seven years of trial and error, it is time to examine the outcomes of those relaxed initial eligibility standards. The verdict? Having led to only modest gains in both African-American participation and federal graduation rates in the most visible sports—men's basketball and football—the 2003 changes have failed to help achieve the NCAA's stated goals of increasing the number of minority athletes who graduate from college. Even more important, the academy has been diminished in the process: The lower test-score standards, combined with high-school grade inflation, have led to greater numbers of athletes who qualify with very low test scores. Those students possess inadequate skills to manage college academics, creating a greater need for academic-support services at institutions already struggling with strained budgets, staffs, and faculties.

Since the onset of the program, in 2003, gains in minority access to higher education through big-time college sports have been negligible. The NCAA's "Student-Athlete Ethnicity Report" tracked the participation rates of self-reported ethnicity classifications, by team, each year from 1999 to 2009, and showed that since the change in initial eligibility standards, only a slight increase has been realized in African-American participation in the sports of basketball and football in Division 1 athletics—even though in the four-year period leading up to 2003 reforms, there was a steady increase of minority participants who met the higher standards of a minimum test-score requirement.

During the several years before the NCAA's academic reform, from 1999 to 2002, the African-American participation rate in Division 1 men's basketball increased 2.9 percentage points, from 55.0 to 57.9 percent. But it rose only three points, to 60.9 percent, between 2003 and 2009, after the reforms. The same growth trend was evident in football: African-American participation increased steadily from 39.5 percent to 43.8 percent, between 1999 and 2002, but only two points, to 45.8 percent, from 2003 to 2009. According to the NCAA's reports on Division I federal graduation rates of African-American student-athletes, the most recent data for men's basketball revealed a one-point decline in the 2003 cohort, to 43 percent, and football increased just one point, to 48 percent, over the previous year.

In addition to the failure to improve access to higher education or graduation rates to minority athletes, the NCAA's relaxation of academic standards has challenged the academic integrity of higher education. As Mike Knobler reported in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in December 2008, a growing number of selective institutions in the NCAA have experienced a widening gap between the average academic profiles of their athletes and their student bodies. In the classroom, at-risk athletes with poor academic skills find it increasingly difficult to compete for grades with their classmates, even though they generally enroll in one of a narrow selection of academic majors. Because of the time demands of athletics and the deficiencies in academic skills that hinder high-risk athletes from competing in more-demanding curricula, they tend to select majors of least resistance with an abundance of elective coursework: general studies, multidisciplinary studies, interdisciplinary studies. They even resort to acts of academic dishonesty to maintain their athletic eligibility.

Finally, there is the financial impact on colleges. In addition to the reduced academic requirements enacted in 2003, the NCAA assigned punitive actions—including the elimination of a team's athletics-related financial aid, banning from postseason championship participation, restrictions on NCAA membership rights, and public censure—for institutions whose teams did not meet retention, eligibility, and graduation thresholds.

The measures prompted significant increases in budgets for academic support, as well as pressure on staff members hired to work with marginal athletes—burdens that most institutions can ill afford. The need to employ cadres of academic advisers, learning specialists, and tutors to ensure the eligibility, retention, and graduation of their most high-risk athletes in a massive remediation effort to avoid team and institutional penalties imposed by the NCAA is another unintended consequence of the 2003 reforms. Brad Wolverton's 2008 Chronicle report "Rise in Fancy Academic Centers for Athletes Raises Questions of Fairness" brought attention to the escalation of academic-support facilities and expenditures devoted to the remediation of high-risk athletes. My own university spends more than $2-million annually for academic services for athletes, employing learning specialists, reading specialists, and tutors to ensure their success in the classroom.

The NCAA insists that its academic reforms are working. It announces its manufactured Academic Progress Rates and graduation-success rates each year with much fanfare. But that self-congratulation should be tempered by the very real costs to institutional integrity and to the athletes themselves. When higher graduation rates come at the expense of underprepared athletes, who squeak through college after being guided into majors with an abundance of elective hours and little discernible preparation for life after sports, the costs are excessive. When we admit athletes who cannot read or understand college textbooks and who lack the necessary skills to compete in the classroom, the costs are excessive. When athletic departments pressure admissions committees and routinely appeal denials to college presidents, the costs to institutional integrity are out of balance.

One has to question the motives of those who designed the NCAA's latest attempt at academic reform. Did the NCAA sacrifice academic integrity in the interest of improving the entertainment product? That has been the result, intentional or not.

The NCAA must re-establish freshman eligibility standards for athletes that ensure a minimum skill set to compete in the classroom. In addition to reinstating minimum standardized-test scores, incorporating an additional measurement of reading and mathematics skills may be necessary. The NCAA and college presidents must be certain that every athlete is equipped to take advantage of a college education; to do otherwise is an empty and unfulfilled offer. For every time a college president caves to a coach's appeal to admit a woefully underprepared athletic phenom—holding the winning aspirations of the coach over the well-being of a student who would be a better fit at another institution—that college suffers an irreparable blow.

Gerald S. Gurney, president of the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics, is senior associate athletic director for academics and student life and an assistant professor of adult and higher education at the University of Oklahoma.