ATLANTA – Officials from small, tuition-driven colleges criticized a pilot program to gather the graduation rates of athletes from Division III institutions Thursday at the annual convention  of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, arguing that they cannot bear the cost of additional data collection.
The Division III Presidents Council recently approved the creation of a voluntary program to collect such data so that member institutions could compare the federally reported graduation rates of their athletes and non-athletes. The two-year trial program would also allow the division’s members to discern their Academic Success Rate, an NCAA-created graduation rate that takes into account transfer students and does not punish institutions for athletes that leave in good academic standing.
Member institutions within Division I and II are required to produce such data, and it is made public  by the NCAA annually. Currently, the NCAA does not require that Division III institutions track the academic success of their athletes – although a handful of conferences have their own requirements for tracking related data. Still, any institution-specific figures collected during the pilot program would not be publicized.
Some Division III loyalists often argue that there is no need to track such data and claim that their athletes are academically indistinguishable from their classmates because their institutions, unlike those in Division I and II, cannot offer athletic scholarships.
In recent years, however, some Division III watchdog groups have questioned whether “the academic performance of student-athletes is, at a minimum, consistent with that of the general student body,” as stipulated by the division’s philosophy statement . A recent report  by the College Sports Project , for example, reveals a widening academic performance gap between athletes and non-athletes at some Division III institutions.
Though participation in the trial program is voluntary, some Division III athletics directors and presidents worry that the division may soon require participation and begin punishing institutions for the poor academic performance of their athletes, much like the Academic Progress Rate  has been used in Division I to reduce scholarships, limit team practice and ban teams from postseason play .
Eric Hartung, NCAA associate director of research, tried to quell the anxieties of Division III representatives who attended a Thursday meeting outlining the details of the new data collection program.
“It is not a precursor to establish initial or continuing eligibility rules in the division,” Hartung said. “We do not have a crisis as was the case in Division I when initial eligibility rules were established over 20 years ago and academic reporting took place and was established.… What does the future hold? Remember, a required national reporting program could never be established without approval from the full membership.”
Other NCAA officials promoted the program by outlining its many positives. Michael Miranda, another NCAA associate director of research, argued that academic reporting within the division would greatly help its leaders in making informed decisions about future rules changes.
“If we had a process by which we could gather information on a national basis and establish national norms, it would help us to develop better policies and learn more about the impact of those policies,” Miranda said. “In 2004 – and this is the most obvious example – we initiated significant changes in the playing and practice seasons, and we simply don’t know if that had the desired effect on student-athletes. We don’t know if that helped them academically or hurt them.”
The Division III pilot program, however, is not without its critics. Debra Townsley, president of Nichols College and a panelist at Thursday’s meeting, noted that her institution is participating in the program but that it does not completely agree with it in theory or practice. Though her institution already tracks figures like the grade point averages for all of its sports teams for its own purposes, she expressed concern that the NCAA would eventually require that institutions like hers report more data.
She explained that her institution has been “bombarded” at the state and federal level by demands for more student success data because of newer reporting requirements from legislation like the recently renewed Higher Education Act.
“This is coming at us from all directions,” Townsley said. “I guess I’d like to not see it from one more direction. When you get into graduation rates, there are a lot of issues. Are we going to limit access for certain students?… We know that first-generation students actually drop out at a higher rate. We know that underrepresented groups aren’t as successful at staying in college. If we’re going to graduation rates as an institution or within an athletic department, does that mean we’re going to accept only those students we know are going to be successful, especially if it’s tied to some penalty?”
The possibility of penalty is not Townsley’s only concern with the division’s push for data collection. She also noted that other reporting requirements have stretched her institution’s budget.
“I think this is getting to be a burdensome issue for colleges, in particular for small colleges who might not have the database technology that you need,” Townsley said. “What is the financial cost of all of this reporting, especially to small, tuition-driven schools? I think we need to start considering that.”Dennis Leighton, a faculty athletics representative from the University of New England and a fellow panelist, countered the notion that the reporting request of those in the Division III pilot program would be cumbersome. The University of New England, he said, is already compiling some of the data being requested by the program. He said establishing the means by which to mine the data from institutional research might cause some initial difficulty, but argued that once a system was in place, gathering the data would be a relatively easy affair.
Leighton also spoke to the fringe benefits of reporting, noting that he has used positive data about the academic performance of athletes at his institution to win favor for the program among skeptical faculty members.
“On campus, it can be very positive,” Leighton said of academic reporting. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen on the national level.”