Helping Athletes Make the Grade

The NCAA's new academic standards for athletic eligibility haven't taken effect yet, but the first students they'll apply to are already in high school -- and colleges that aren't spreading the word are dropping the ball, officials argue.

January 23, 2013

GRAPEVINE, Texas – If an athletics department doesn’t have people spreading the word to high school students, counselors and parents about the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s heightened academic standards for initial eligibility, it’s doing a serious injustice to the athletes who will be arriving on college campuses in the coming years, officials say.

“These kids are investing in their future, and it would be fundamentally unfair for them to get to the finish line and realize they’re failing – not because of them, but because we didn’t tell them what to do,” said John Morris, deputy athletics director at Colorado State University. “It’s access to a college degree, or not.”

Morris and other athletic administrators presented to a packed room of college presidents, athletics directors and faculty members here at the annual NCAA convention last week, trying to imbue a sense of urgency into those who don’t already have it.

“Coaches want their young people to graduate and have great lives, and if we can get the word out about these rules, we actually have the potential to effectuate tremendous positive change nationwide,” said Morris, calling the effort a "moral obligation."

“We can motivate people to come into college better-positioned to get a degree.”

The new eligibility standards, approved by the Division I Board of Directors in October 2011 and taking effect in August 2016, raised to 2.3 from 2.0 the minimum grade-point average athletes must have in a set of high school core courses to qualify to compete once in college. (The NCAA has adjusted its sliding scale, which allows athletes to compensate for lower GPAs with higher standardized test scores, to account for the change.) The rules also require students to complete 10 of the 16 required core courses – seven of which must be in English, math and science – before their senior year of high school.

Students whose GPAs fall between the old and new minimums will be granted a form of recourse: an “academic redshirt year,” through which they can still receive athletic scholarships and practice with the team, so long as they pass at least nine semester or eight credit hours in their first term.

The NCAA also raised its academic standards for community college transfers, who must have achieved a 2.5 GPA in high school, up from 2.0; otherwise, they’ll have to complete a core curriculum of English, math and science courses.

How administrators are framing the development depends who they’re talking to. But it always involves being frank, they say.

"I don’t think I want to be known as the dream-killer, but one thing I do is operate in reality,” said Eric Hart, associate athletic director for academic services for student-athletes at Delaware State University. When Hart looked into it, he found that in nine years, not one Delaware State football player was professionally drafted. “I took that back to our student-athletes and said, ‘Your plan should be to get your degree…. Use your education as a vehicle to play your sport, and not the other way around.’ ”

That might be a good way to explain the benefits of the changes to students. But equally important is that parents know about the changes -- meaning that the high school academic counselors they and their students are talking to need to know, too.

And with new and relatively complicated changes, there’s a risk of miscommunication. So staff at the University of Kansas teamed up with colleagues at Kansas State and Wichita State Universities to develop a brochure for counselors and parents with “simple, concise, consistent” information.

“We didn’t want any school or prospective student-athlete in our state to get misinformation or misinterpretation of information because of the way it was being designed on our campus,” said Theresa Becker, associate athletics director for compliance at Kansas. “It’s been a challenge, I think, on all of us,” she said, but, “you have to get your attitude in check about it.”

At Kansas, staff had been preparing for the rules change for a while, Becker said, so they weren’t blindsided and could be proactive with different stakeholders. They met with the state’s high school education council, and also hosted a “day of discussion” on Kansas State’s campus for two-year colleges, to make sure their officials were up to speed.

Colorado State is using its website and social media platforms to spread information, and trying to find ways to get to the high schools. NCAA rules prohibit athletic departments from asking to visit high schools, but Morris’s staff is making it clear that if invited, they will come. He’s also throwing around the idea of a statewide summit. Coaches are helping out, too, following up with counselors and high school coaches more aggressively than they have in the past.

“We tell them they’re not going to make their APR bonus if they don’t pay attention,” Morris joked, referring to the Academic Progress Rate, the metric the NCAA uses to measure students’ classroom progress. (Programs can face penalties for not meeting APR minimums, which the NCAA also raised last year; colleges commonly incentivize coaches with salary bonuses for good performance.) “You’ve got to remind them a lot…. ‘You may hope this is going away, but it’s not, so here again are the rules.’ ”

Hart is planning a summit for Delaware’s high school counselors in March, and said he’d like to partner with other universities -- though he acknowledged he’s lucky in that the state is so small. Another option is setting up a panel for parents at the university's upcoming career fair, he said. And it doesn’t have to be all boring; Hart used computer software to develop a Jeopardy!-like quiz with different categories for different standards, which students can play and try to best the coaches’ scores.

At Marquette University, admissions people will be pushed to evaluate students earlier to make sure they’re on track to meet the standards, said Adrienne Ridgeway, Marquette’s assistant athletics director for academic services.

“No more hiding transcripts until the end, hoping that something’s going to change,” she said.

And you’ve got to have the patience to answer the same questions from parents, over and over and over again, Hart said.

“We owe it to them to be upfront and honest with the process,” he said. “Regardless of the standard – regardless of how we raise these metrics – we are indebted to our student-athletes to meet this standard.”

Morris, a member of the NCAA’s Committee on Academic Performance, encouraged convention attendees who’ve run into problems getting the word out to talk to him, saying he’ll deliver the message to the CAP. (For example, if they are hamstrung by the rule that keeps colleges from reaching out to high schools.)

“Yeah, this is difficult, it’s a pain, somebody will be negatively, but we’re doing this for the right reasons,” Morris said. “We may debate a little bit about the timing and how we’re going about it, but our purpose is noble, so let’s try to stay positive and get this done as soon as we can.”


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