Mark (pseudonym) walks into my office every day to practice reading and writing. He may be quick and athletic on the track, but in front of a book he is reserved and awkward. I am one of the learning specialists he sees, and when he first came to me, he could barely compose a full paragraph. Now, just a few months into his freshman year of college, he can write three-page papers that earn him Cs.
Mark will probably never be a Rhodes Scholar. He is not likely to attend graduate school and probably will not earn Latin honors as an undergraduate. However, as our few months together have shown, he is far more capable than his ACT score indicates. Because of his hard work and my colleagues' and my commitment to his learning, Mark has a chance to earn a college degree. He is on the verge of success, yet he is one of the athletes Gerald Gurney would have denied NCAA admission because Mark’s ACT score was too low.
Gurney brings up some important points in his Feb. 7 article,  “Toughen NCAA Standards for Freshmen.” In college athletics, eligibility is often emphasized over student development. Consequently, coaches and support staff may be tempted to engage in academic misconduct to keep underprepared athletes eligible. However, Gurney’s proposed solution, to raise NCAA admission standards for incoming freshmen, would amount to nothing less than discrimination against the thousands of high school athletes whose urban and rural schools cannot provide them with the quality education they deserve.
Our college athletes are blessed with remarkable athletic abilities, yet as readers of Inside Higher Ed know, the vast majority of them will not become professional athletes. Thus, earning a college degree is their best chance to attain the kind of middle-class lifestyle most readers here find customary.
My fellow learning specialists and I are committed to our athletes’ learning, and we are trained and prepared to work with any athlete who comes through our doors, no matter how deficient his or her skills may be. Not all of them are success stories, but every year across the country, hundreds, maybe thousands, of athletes become the first in their families to earn a college degree.
If Gurney’s proposed solution were adopted, many of these athletes would be denied this opportunity. They would remain the high school superstars whose high schools could not — and whose colleges would not — provide them the quality education they deserve and, most importantly, are capable of attaining.
Academic misconduct may be a systemic problem, but the solution should not be denying admission to those most disadvantaged. Gurney is right to criticize the 2003 NCAA reform, but he is denouncing the wrong particulars. As Gurney’s predecessor Sandra K. Meyer suggested six years ago in the Phi Kappa Phi Forum, the problem results from the unintended consequences of the 40-60-80 progress-toward-degree policy.
According to this mandate, athletes are expected to complete 40% of their major’s requirements by the end of their second year, 60% by the end of their third year, and 80% by the end of their fourth year. Failure to comply means ineligibility. Consequently, while most college freshmen are sampling various classes and exploring potential majors, athletes are pressured to choose quickly the major of least resistance and stick with it. Athletes taking remedial courses, which do not count toward degree progress, feel this pressure most forcefully. The implied message is that eligibility is more important than student development.
When athletes are dictated which classes to take and when, as happens often, they become increasingly disengaged from academics, learning becomes all the more difficult, especially for the most underprepared. If there is a systemic problem of academic misconduct, it is not because too many underprepared athletes are admitted to college. It is because our institutions give these athletes the impression that classes are no more than hoops to jump through — the easier the jump, the better.
The solution is to prioritize student development and learning as high as eligibility. At the policy level, this means revising the progress-toward-degree mandate to allow athletes more latitude when exploring and changing majors. This does not mean returning to the time when athletes could take whichever classes sounded easiest, without any intention to graduate. A policy is needed that can hold athletes accountable for making progress yet is flexible enough to allow reasonable career exploration.
On the ground level, athletes must be granted autonomy over their own education. They must be encouraged to make academic decisions for themselves and supported along the way. Learning specialists cannot be the only ones emphasizing the student domain of “student-athlete.” Coaches and advisers need to communicate the importance of learning and development, too.
My fellow learning specialists and I have helped countless athletes become success stories. Our experience testifies to the fact that an ACT score does not reflect an athlete’s innate ability. However, our experience also testifies to the fact that learning can be either helped or hindered by the athlete’s educational milieu. The NCAA should maintain its admission policy but revise the progress-toward-degree mandate.
Where student development is a concern and learning is promoted, many of even the most high-risk athletes can succeed. Rather than shut out disadvantaged athletes from college athletics, we should welcome them into a culture of learning. Within such a culture, they will have a legitimate chance at success — without committing academic misconduct.
In college, the name of the game is learning. When advisers, coaches, learning specialists, and, let us not forget, the athletes themselves begin playing the same game, we all have a chance at winning. In this case, the prize is not just a trophy. It is the future well-being of student-athletes like Mark.
Bradley R.H. Bethel is an assistant learning specialist at Ohio State University. His views are his alone and do not represent those of his university.