Colleen Evans, the former director of student-athlete academic support services at San Diego State University, loved counseling athletes. Hers was better than a regular advising job, she says, because the focus on athletes alone allowed her to work more closely with fewer students, building stronger relationships and watching the students grow both on the field and off.
But at times, pressures from coaches to keep athletes eligible -- sometimes at the expense of an athlete's academic pursuits -- were too much to bear. So much so that after 20 years in the business, she recently left it. "It just -- it gets to be a lot," she says. "You can feel the walls closing in on you, from all sides."
When the National Collegiate Athletic Association raises the academic standards athletes must meet to be eligible, debate about whether it’s in the best interest of those students inevitably ensues. The NCAA argues that its more stringent rules – which regulate an athlete’s courseload, minimum grade point average and progress toward a degree (measured by the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate) – have led to higher graduation rates . But critics contend  that the rules force athletes to weigh their desire to remain eligible against their academic interests when the time comes to choose classes and even majors, and wrongly assume that an athlete who graduates received a good education.
Among the advisers who guide these athletes through college, opinions about the extent to which the latter is true vary. But they agree the rules are making the profession increasingly complicated, and many say they’re contributing to quick burnout and high turnover.
“That shadow of APR and eligibility rules -- it’s just like a cloud that’s looming over us constantly,” said Joseph P. Luckey, director of athletic academic services at the University of Memphis and president of N4A, the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics. “The focus is more about those things than worrying about, is this kid growing academically, is this kid growing as an individual, is this student ready for life after college?”
Academic advisers to athletes say it is common for staff to leave the profession after just a few years, and at the annual N4A convention, it’s tough to find anyone who’s been in the game longer than five or six. As in every field, there’s more than one factor at play: institutions with top athletic programs might have more than a dozen advisers on staff, while those with fewer resources have just a handful for several hundred students -- even as many have bulked up their staff in the growing field. There’s also typically not a lot of upward mobility, which advisers say drives turnover to an extent.
But it’s clear that the philosophical quandary sometimes posed by the NCAA’s academic standards weighs heavily on advisers’ minds.
Take, for instance. the newly instated “nine-credit rule,” which beginning in August will require football players to take at least 12 credits in the fall term and pass at least nine of them (they currently must pass only six). Athletes who don’t comply will be suspended from the first four games of the following season.
In research  presented at last month’s College Sport Research Institute Conference, advisers were pessimistic about the rule’s effect on students -- discouraging them from taking academic risks, to preserve eligibility -- and on the advisers themselves.
“Our unit does not advise based on how to keep students eligible, which this legislation is encouraging,” one adviser said. “We can now, officially, be classified as ‘eligibility brokers’ instead of ‘academic advisers.’ "
The roots of academic reform  in the NCAA trace back to 1983, when the association established a minimum 2.0 GPA, 700 SAT score and 11 earned core courses for prospective athletes (today, the NCAA uses a sliding scale by which an athlete can make up for a lower GPA with higher standardized test scores, and vice versa). Over the past two decades, the association has gradually upped the bar on continuing eligibility. But the system also allows institutions to regularly enroll athletes with lesser credentials than the typical admit -- contributing ever more to the pressure on advisers.
The two biggest reform packages came in 2003-4, with the creation of the APR, and last year , when the NCAA raised the minimum APR, established a new penalty structure for those who don’t meet it, and issued new core-course eligibility rules for incoming freshmen and transfer students.
“Nobody’s going to really advocate for less strict academic standards,” said Jim Pignataro, who is in his 10th year as director of student-athlete support services at Michigan State University. “The rub is where we can’t control admissions -- however, we have eligibility and progress-to-degree standards that are very difficult and make the work of academic advisers very difficult.”
Athletes must also adhere to the 40/60/80 rule, part of the NCAA’s 2003 academic reform package. It requires athletes to complete 40 percent of their degree requirements by the end of their second year, 60 percent by the end of the third year, and so on. If the NCAA is already ensuring progress to degree through that rule, Luckey asks, why go further into the weeds with arbitrary policies like the 9-credit rule?
“You can’t legislate every outcome,” Luckey said. “What’s happened is we’re making decisions based on data. Absolutely, if I pass more hours in a semester am I going to be more on track to graduate? The answer is yes…. But as you try to legislate those things, it can have those negative consequences.”
In Evans's experience, an at-risk athlete who has just floated along to maintain eligibility has few choices when it comes time to choose a major. A college GPA that's hovering around 2.0 doesn't allow for many options (though she stressed that the majority of athletes don't have this problem; it's generally the star players, who more often than not have been admitted outside the regular admissions process at their colleges, who have trouble).
"So the conversation is, 'O.K., where do you want to go here, because if you really want to do that major, you're going to have to give up athletics and focus on school,' " Evans says. "Well, that isn't an option when you're talking to a kid who's on a full athletic scholarship."
(Asked to comment, San Diego State said in a statement: "Student-Athlete Academic Support Services is committed to a comprehensive program of academic, professional and personal development for student-athletes. The SAASS works closely with campus resources across campus to enhance the academic and career development of student-athletes." It also stressed the consistently increasing number of athletes -- at most recent count, 256 of 500 total, setting a record for the seventh straight year -- who are recognized for achieving at least a 3.0 cumulative GPA or one of 3.2 in either fall or spring semester.)
Gerald Gurney, an assistant professor of adult and higher education at the University of Oklahoma and a longtime adviser to athletes there, worries that the standards, combined with ever-intensifying pressure from coaches to keep their players eligible, are correlated with the notable rise in academic rules violations .
“Many of the young professionals are former student-athletes who earn a master’s degree in something related to counseling or student personnel work in higher education or student affairs and they come into the profession wide-eyed and believing that they can make a true difference,” Gurney said. “And slowly they find themselves to be products of a much larger system that only cares about the eligibility of student athletes and APR numbers getting the athletes eligible at all or any cost.”
Gurney has found in his research  that many of the athletes who get into college by virtue of the NCAA’s sliding scale are not truly prepared for college-level work. But the NCAA says that if advisers are having trouble keeping athletes eligible under its rules, perhaps colleges shouldn’t be admitting those students in the first place.
“One of the things I think that we continue to stress, obviously, is that institutions need to be comfortable that they’re bringing in students who are capable of doing the work and being successful on that campus,” said Kevin Lennon, the NCAA’s vice president of academic and membership affairs. “As you raise the standards and as campuses, even independent of the NCAA, are raising the academic qualifications of their incoming students in general ... that becomes a real conversation that needs to take place on campuses.”
Carrie Leger, director of the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes at North Carolina State University, is less pessimistic than many of her colleagues.
“I often am saying that I support [the rules], and am in favor of them, and really appreciate the work that the NCAA has done in reviewing data to understand what meaningful increases are,” Leger said. “There are some challenges. But my experience is, when we raise the bar, the students meet it.”
Leger, who used to work on academic issues at the NCAA, says the key is effective communication between all parties. North Carolina State, for instance, does educational sessions before the fall semester with advising staff, coaches and athletes, in which the standards -- and the consequences for not meeting them -- are thoroughly reviewed.
“I hear the frustrations of some of my colleagues, and they’re tired, and they’re not having fun,” Leger said. “I think it’s harder when you don’t feel like you have the support of the people that you’re working with and the coaches that you’re working with. I think then advisers really have the weight of, ‘I’ve got to figure out how to do that -- how is the student going to be eligible?’ It takes a village sometimes.”
And the solution isn’t always ideal. Just last week, Luckey spoke with a student who wanted to study pre-med -- and play professional football. He chose a different major (and acknowledged that it was his choice).
“It’s not as simple as providing tutoring, mentoring, advising to students,” Luckey said. “It’s gotten more about tracking the students, the numbers, the research, so that I often find there’s days that I spend more time doing reports to the NCAA and other things than I actually do sitting in an office with students in front of me.”
For Evans, that was always the best part. But the constant back-and-forth with coaches, acting as a liaison between them and faculty, making phone calls to handle issues with other parts of campus like housing or administration -- overshadows the rest of the work.
"At the end of the day, it's very much about what one power coach wants. And an athletic director who's listening to his coach is going to say, 'O.K,' " says Evans, who advocates for moving academic centers for athletes outside the scope of athletics departments. "And I think there's very few individuals out there who can manage that for very long."