CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The academic reform measures that National Collegiate Athletic Association leaders approved this fall have been held up as evidence that the NCAA takes education seriously. Higher minimum grade point averages and Academic Progress Rates, they say -- and stiffer penalties for teams that don't meet the academic progress benchmark that represents a 50-percent graduation rate -- back up the claim that players are, as NCAA President Mark Emmert puts it, "students who happen to be athletes," not the other way around.
Unsurprisingly, faculty and some other officials have been more critical. At the annual NCAA convention in January, some speculated that the measures may lead to higher graduation rates -- but only because athletes will be driven to take easier classes or succumb to academic fraud.
And the academic advisers who work with those athletes agree.
So say the findings of one study presented here Thursday at an annual conference hosted by the College Sport Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Granted, the study singled out a separate, less-talked about rule that actually took effect in August. But the thinking behind the rule aligns with the reforms passed just two months later: raise academic standards and you will raise APRs, raise APRs and more students graduate faster, and more students graduating equals academic success.
And the potential unintended consequences are the same, too.
Called the "9-credit rule," the measure examined in the study upped the number of credit hours football players must pass each fall from six to nine (of at least 12 total), penalizing athletes who don't comply with a four-game suspension at the beginning of the following season. Or, the suspension can be cut to two games if the player passes 27 credits by the following fall.
The rule is in line with other recent measures requiring athletes to spread out their credit hours for more consistent academic progress, rather than take just a few hours during the season and have trouble catching up in the rush to fit everything else in during the spring and summer. (The rule also garnered a few dozen override requests from institutions, but not enough to nix it.)
The researchers, Joshua Castle of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Les Myers of the University of New Mexico, surveyed 121 football academic advisers to gauge how the rule would affect their advice to athletes and how the athletes might be harmed. (The researchers sent surveys directly to advisers across the country, so the sample spans different types of institutions and all Division I athletic conferences.)
What they found wasn't terribly encouraging.
"Seventy percent of respondents said this rule is going to do absolutely nothing" to raise APR scores, said Castle, an assistant professor of health and physical education. "If you don't believe something is going to work, are you going to do it? My guess would be not."
On average, advisers said that had the rule been in effect this year, six of their football players would have been suspended -- and that number reached as high as 31.
Probably not unrelated is this finding: about half of advisers said that under the 9-credit rule, students will be more likely to choose less difficult majors or make decisions that lead to clustering -- in which athletes study certain subjects in disproportionately large numbers because they are perceived as being easy.
"If they have a choice between academics and eligibility, a lot of times they're going to choose eligibility," Castle said.
"Finally, I will have no choice but to allow our at-risk players to only pursue certain degrees," one adviser commented.
"I fear that this rule will unintentionally penalize student-athletes who would otherwise have a solid chance of completing a degree but must 'settle' for an alternative for fear of jeopardizing their future eligibility," another said.
Yet another took it further: "Students who come up short in the fall will then take even less chances in the next term(s) in order to regain their eligibility -- further insuring a growth in clustering/less academically demanding majors."
And when it comes time to pick classes, football players aren't the only ones with something to lose, Castle pointed out: athletic advisers get fired when students become ineligible -- academic fulfillment is not part of the equation.
As for the 25 percent of advisers who predicted no change in clustering, it is unclear whether that was because they take pride in their athletes, or because the football players are already clustering.
But, in what could be a positive sign, 63 percent of advisers predicted coaches will take a greater academic interest in their athletes because of the rule (though they indicated it won't affect who the coaches recruit).
Six in 10 advisers said they would probably change their strategy in light of the 9-credit rule -- 40 percent by monitoring students more closely (requiring weekly grade reports, communicating more with professors, making sure they're attending class, intensifying degree planning and tutoring), and 21 percent by advising athletes to take more courses (15 credit hours, up from 12, with three to six of those being easier electives, to increase the likelihood the students will pass nine).
They also said they'd be less likely to tell the student to drop a course. "If they don't drop the course and get a D, yes, they pass the course ... but is it going to affect their eligibility?" Castle said, noting the 2.0 minimum GPA for football players. "It's kind of a two-edged sword there."
Castle also worried about the impact the rule might have on professor-adviser relationships, should increased monitoring of classroom performance become a burden on faculty.
"Will this kind of harassment alienate professors?" Castle said. "I think that's something that's probably going to be a risk."
Thirteen percent of respondents said they'll tell students to take less-stringent courses in the fall, and will probably advise against taking courses pass/fail. Five percent said they'd want students to stagger their electives between fall semesters as "insurance" against failure, and emphasize core courses more.
Asked specifically about working with incoming freshmen, even more advisers (about 65 percent) said they'd likely do things differently. (By 2016 the minimum GPA for incoming freshmen will be 2.3, under new eligibility rules; some research has suggested athletes' basic academic skills are so lacking that they must rely on grade inflation or cheating even to earn a 2.0 GPA, let alone a higher one.)
Advisers said they would favor earlier major selection, more "academic learning strategies" classes to identify at-risk students sooner, more progress reports and monitoring, and more extensive planning. "They talked about planning their whole careers out," Castle said, right off the bat.
But it's clear that the students that advisers fear will need more help are the at-risk ones. More than 70 percent of respondents said they'd change their strategies for at-risk students, and only about 5 percent said they wouldn't.
Despite "more monitoring" being the most common measure advisers expect to take to help students meet this new benchmark, nearly eight in 10 said they don't expect to get more money or resources for it.
"I think where the 9-hour rule will have the biggest impact is on the non-Bowl Championship Series institutions that do not have the resources to provide the level of academic support student athletes are receiving at BCS institutions," one adviser commented in the survey. "Once again widening the gap in another area between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots.' "
One attendee (this conference crowd consists mostly of researchers) suggested the NCAA remedy the resource issue by redistributing some funds from its tournament revenues directly into colleges' advising centers. That, he said, would reinforce the association's claim that academics come first and foremost.
Some audience members, though, said that advisers were being "too cynical" in their outlooks. One asked why they didn't think "adult students" could manage to pass just nine credit hours a semester.
Castle, though, hesitated to agree. "I think they're dealing with the cards they're dealt," he said in an interview after the session.
Regardless, most who attended agreed there are "competing values" at play.
"Our unit does not advise based on how to keep students eligible, which this legislation is encouraging," one adviser said. "We will continue to encourage students to excel in the classroom; however, more emphasis will now have to be placed on eligibility, as opposed to academic excellence. We can now, officially, be classified as 'eligibility brokers' instead of 'academic advisers.' "