The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced late Thursday that its Division I Board of Directors had approved a four-year moratorium on new colleges joining the group's burgeoning top competitive level while association members study possible changes in Division I membership criteria. But nearly two dozen colleges that have already initiated the process of joining Division I -- which now has 331 colleges and universities in it -- will be exempted from the moratorium, association officials said.
The NCAA announced a series of other decisions made this week at meetings of the boards of college presidents that govern its three competitive divisions. Among the other changes:
- The Division I Board of Directors declined to reconsider its decision in April to ban college coaches from sending text messages to athletes they are trying to recruit. The policy, which limits electronic communication with prospective players to e-mail and faxes,  sides with athletes who have complained that text messaging is overly intrusive . The board's decision not to reconsider its earlier vote proposal means that the matter will go to a full vote of the NCAA's Division I members at the association's annual convention in January.
- The Division I board also issued a statement reiterating its commitment  to the set of policies that impose penalties on Division I teams where athletes consistently underperform academically. The board's statement came as the association's policies prepare to expand this year. with significantly more institutions likely to be affected and opposition almost certain to mount.
- The Division III Presidents Council agreed to sponsor legislation at the January convention that would severely restrict the use of male practice players by women's teams . The Division III council also plans to sponsor its own legislation barring text messaging, and it agreed to let its own moratorium on new members lapse as of January.
Division I is the holy grail for many colleges and universities that play sports, with its promise (often unmet) of high visibility and big dollars. The size of the NCAA's top competitive level has expanded significantly in recent years, and while the association has acted to toughen the criteria for membership in Division I-A -- the highest competitive level for football -- it has not done anything similar for Division I over all. It plans to do so now, said S. David Berst, a longtime NCAA staff member who is closely involved in Division I issues. He said the association would review the process for joining Division I and consider additional or tougher criteria.
"It's time to stop and at least assess that process and the impact of that growth on the membership and championship opportunities" for current members of the division," Berst said.
The Division I board's statement on academic reform is remarkable not for what it says, but that the board felt obliged to issue it. This is the year when some aspects of the academic changes that have limited their impact  -- such as exemptions for sports with relatively few players, like basketball -- will end, and the result is likely to be that many more colleges lose scholarships or worse if their Academic Progress Rates dip too low.
If that happens, the screams from coaches and boosters are likely to grow louder, and James Barker, president of Clemson University and head of the Division I board, suggested that the board was trying to steel itself, and presidents of other Division I colleges, for the potential furor.
"We recognize that we're reaching a critical stage" of the academic reform effort, and it's "timely that as the concerns were being expressed about the impact on schools, we strongly and unanimously communicate" that the board stands behind the policies, Barker said.
The board's statement reads: “The Division I Board of Directors strongly and unanimously reaffirms its commitment to improving the academic success of all student-athletes in every sport. That was the charge of the Board four years ago when the current iteration of academic reform was begun and it accurately reflects the Board’s resolve today. Through its unanimous expression of support, the Board makes clear that it will stay the course in its initiative to improve graduation success."
“Academic reform in Division I is beginning its fourth year of implementation, and the Division I Board of Directors recognizes that the initiative is entering a significant period of time when specific sport concerns may be expressed. As a result, the Board anticipates that pressure will increase to diminish the effects of or abandon academic reform. It is appropriate to fine-tune reform implementation and to mitigate unintended consequences. The Division I Board of Directors will remain open to the advice and counsel of the intercollegiate athletics community so that appropriate implementation is realized, but we are unbending in our determination to support the mission of higher education -- educate students.”