Divisive Reforms

Educators want higher NCAA academic standards -- but they're not so sure the association has gone about it in the best way.

January 12, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS -- In all the hubbub over new regulations that (if they're not overturned this week) will provide longer-term, more lucrative scholarships for athletes, other concurrent changes -- representing the National Collegiate Athletic Association's most recent attempt at reforming its academic standards -- have drawn comparatively little attention. But in multiple sessions here at the NCAA's annual convention on Wednesday, it was clear that one would be mistaken to interpret the inattention as a sign of approval, or of apathy.

Ambivalence, maybe.

Faculty athletic representatives, athletics officials and NCAA staff were in general agreement about the positive direction of the measures the Division I Board of Directors approved at its October meeting -- raising the minimum grade point average for freshman eligibility from 2.0 to 2.3, and spacing out the required core courses so incoming athletes do not take them all the summer before college; raising the minimum Academic Progress Rate teams must meet to stay in good NCAA standing to 930, thereby requiring a team to be on track to graduate at least half its players or face financial penalties and an (also new) ban on postseason competition; and allowing colleges to award multiyear scholarships, theoretically boosting graduation rates.

The scholarship rule garnered so much formal opposition from colleges that the board must revisit it at its meeting Saturday, at which point it will either overturn the rule, modify it, or do nothing and allow Division I members to vote on an override. The other rules and the logic behind them have not gone without criticism, to be sure, but the concerns expressed at Wednesday's meetings illustrated the complexity of proposals that, while seemingly well-intentioned, could have some unintended consequences.

At their most sweeping, these worries called into question the basic essence of the NCAA's academic reform. When "success" is determined solely by how many athletes get their degrees, is anybody paying attention to the actual value of the degree? Camille O'Bryant, a professor of kinesiology at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, appreciates the reform efforts. But looking just at graduation rates is "student success oversimplified," she said.

One phenomenon that clearly speaks to O'Bryant's point is clustering: when athletes study certain subjects in disproportionately large numbers because they are perceived as being easy. And as the NCAA has raised its standards over the years, so too have cases of academic fraud been on the upswing.

Despite the troubling implications that could play out, the path forward was obvious for at least one of the leaders who helped solidify the reforms at the retreat of 54 university presidents that NCAA President Mark Emmert called in August.

"Frankly, until I got here today," said Harvey Perlman, chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, "I didn't realize this was so controversial. Seemed to me it was a no-brainer: the more you can incent students to perform, they will; the more you can incent coaches to care about student academic success, the more coaches will pay attention to it."

When asked whether higher standards put disproportionate burden on minority and low-income students, or less-wealthy institutions with little in the way of targeted academic support for athletes, Perlman acknowledged that the higher APR minimum will not "solve the problems in the world." But for Perlman, it comes down to one question: "Are poor students better off with academic standards than without? And to me, that's a pretty easy question to answer."

The new APR penalty structure -- which features such consequences as replacing practice time with academic activities, reducing the number of games, and coaching suspensions, reductions in financial aid and restricted NCAA membership -- does feature some exceptions for "low resource" institutions and historically black colleges and universities, the board said in October. But the ability (or lack thereof) of such institutions to keep up with rising standards is clearly on the minds of many officials.

There's no denying the correlation between high wealth and high academic performance, acknowledged Walter Harrison, chair of the NCAA Committee on Academic Performance and president of the University of Hartford. "This has been something that's haunted me personally and bothered our committee for some time," he said. "I don't think it, however, means that the results that we have been able to show are insignificant or unimportant. I think there's clearly an improvement in the academic achievement of students."

Earlier this year, Harrison and the NCAA announced that the graduation rate of Division I athletes had reached an all-time high of 82 percent.

But Harrison is more optimistic than some. Bill Morgan, a professor of occupational therapy at the University of Southern California, doesn't hold out hope that the new rules can prompt meaningful change -- at least, not so long as NCAA member institutions continue to place a higher premium on their financial bottom lines than on their athletes' educations. (Case in point: colleges shooting down the multiyear scholarship rule for fear of funding a student who doesn't thrive athletically.)

"When you stack up the financial incentives against these good-faith efforts, there's little question over who's going to win this battle," Morgan said. "Hint, hint: it won't be the good guys."

But college sports programs shouldn't get too comfortable, Morgan says. Universities can't maintain their "athletic arms race" forever: programs haven't been able to keep up with ever-increasing spending on multimillion-dollar coaches' salaries, lavish facilities and perks for boosters. Of the 120 institutions that make up the Football Bowl Subdivision, only 14 operate in the black, he said.

"It might seem absurd for me to even suggest that we try to change the culture of intercollegiate sports," Morgan admitted. "But I don't think it's either quixotic or wishful thinking.... It's not a question of whether the economic edifice that supports college sports will topple, but only when it will do so."

Carol A. Cartwright, the president emeritus of Kent State and Bowling Green State Universities who has been involved in setting NCAA academic standards since the board first attempted it, says that at the campus level, neither president nor athletics director can address academic success alone. That's why as a university president, she included the athletics director in her cabinet.

"At the end of the day it is all about leadership," Cartwright said. "It's the president's responsibility to set the tone at the top ... but also to create an environment where people know if they step up and be a leader, they'll be valued."


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