As part of its latest move to strengthen athletic eligibility rules, in October , the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I Board of Directors raised from 2.0 to 2.3 the minimum grade point average that an incoming freshman must have in order to compete. But if the findings of new research hold true, it might not make much of a difference.
To determine initial eligibility, the NCAA uses a sliding scale whereby a student can make up for poor standardized test scores with comparatively high grade point averages, or vice versa. But with no minimum SAT or ACT scores in place, students can theoretically bomb their standardized tests and still play if their grades are high enough.
And that sliding scale  is the reason why thousands of athletes have been admitted to college without the basic skills they need to succeed academically -- skills as basic as knowing how to read -- says Gerald S. Gurney, co-author of a study being presented Tuesday at the annual NCAA convention in Indianapolis.
“Those who have gained their eligibility by virtue of high school grades are coming in, actually, with significantly lower academic skills and need significant remediation,” Gurney, an assistant professor of adult and higher education at the University of Oklahoma and longtime academic administrator in Oklahoma's athletics department who has called for tougher eligibility standards before , said in an interview. “My conclusion is that the NCAA’s sliding scale got it wrong. They’re letting in students who really ought not to be at a four-year institution.”
Gurney and study co-author Carla A. Winters, an academic counselor in the university’s athletic department, administered the Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT), which measures test takers’ most basic reading and math skills, to 109 specially admitted athletes who enrolled at Oklahoma from 2007-9. They broke the students into two groups: those who scored below the previous standardized test minimum scores of 17 on the ACT and 820 on the SAT, and those who did not. The former group comprised 21 students; the latter, 88.
In three out of four WRAT categories -- word recognition, sentence comprehension and spelling -- there were statistically significant differences in scores between the two groups of athletes; math is the only area where no difference was apparent. This suggests that at least some athletes being admitted below the old threshold and through the sliding scale system did poorly on standardized tests not because of cultural bias, but because they lacked essential knowledge, Gurney says.
“It is troubling for the authors to think that students who may be significantly deficient in reading and other basic academic skills are achieving the same high school GPA as students without that deficiency,” the study reads. Which of course raises a question: How is that happening? Gurney and Winters point to grade inflation, citing research finding that in general, the average amount of grade inflation ranges from 0.20 to 0.26 of a grade point on a 4.0 GPA scale.
However, NCAA officials dispute Gurney’s assessment.
“We’ve been looking through big, national databases for 20 years at issues related to initial eligibility and predictors of academic success, and a couple things are clear no matter how we look at it,” said Todd Petr, managing director of research at NCAA. One, high school grades “remain clearly the better predictor of eventual academic success” than test scores alone -- with a combination of grades and test scores (in other words, a sliding scale), being a “somewhat better” predictor. And two, a minimum test score would give standardized tests too much value under the NCAA’s statistical model, which weighs grades more heavily than tests in predicting academic success.
Before 2003, the NCAA required minimum standardized test scores as well as GPAs, but the association nixed the former and left the scale in place after a lawsuit against it charged that the system discriminated against minority athletes, who typically do less well on the SAT. The NCAA won that lawsuit, which was filed in 1996, but eliminated the minimum score anyway.
The NCAA said at the time that the scale wasn’t solely in response to the lawsuit. Regardless, admitting students who score exceptionally low on standardized tests isn’t doing them any favors, Gurney said. It puts them in a setting where they struggle to perform academically, but under NCAA Academic Progress Rate rules, they must continuously move toward their degree. Dealing with that every day, with the knowledge that you’re less capable than your peers, and perhaps incapable over all, can also be mentally damaging for athletes, which is why psychological supports within athletic departments have become more common, and academic support has “boom[ed].”
“The perfect storm is, you let in students with less preparedness and then expect more from them on the progress-to-degree end,” Gurney says. “And then what do you expect? These students are going to panic; they’re going to cheat.” (An Inside Higher Ed analysis  found that the number of colleges that the NCAA punished for serious academic rules violations nearly doubled in the 2000s, as compared to the decade prior.)
The NCAA points out that its standards don’t dictate whether a university can admit a student -- only whether it can’t. So if an institution feels a given student isn’t fit for college, no one’s stopping it from denying admission. Jennifer Strawley, director of academic and membership affairs at NCAA, also points out that across the board, Gurney is talking about a very small group of athletes. In 2009-10, she said, more than 25,000 freshmen met the initial eligibility rules. Only 81 of them scored below 700 on the SAT, and four scored below 600. (The number of athletes who scored below 800, closer to the mark Gurney uses, was not available.)
“There just aren’t students that live in this area that he references,” Strawley said.
But Gurney thinks the NCAA should reconsider its thinking.
“Academic reform has hurt the integrity of the university significantly, in balance, by virtue of letting in students who really should be remediated at community colleges,” Gurney said. “The people who are charged with working with these students are the ones that have to live with these rules, and I don’t believe that a college president or a faculty athletics rep or anyone in their governance structure has ever sat face-to-face with a student-athlete who can’t read. So my advice to the NCAA would be, start listening to those who actually do their bidding.”