Toughen NCAA Standards for Freshmen

Academic scandals involving athletes have been a predictable outcome of the 2003 elimination of minimum requirements for freshmen, Gerald S. Gurney argues.


February 7, 2011

Facing allegations of widespread academic scandal in his football program in August 2010, Chancellor Holden Thorp of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill immediately launched an investigation of the university’s academic support system for athletes. The charges, involving academic work provided to football players by a tutor under the employ of the head football coach, follow similar findings of institutional involvement in academic dishonesty of 61 athletes at Florida State University in 2008. In January 2010, Georgia Southern University was placed on two years of probation for academic fraud violations that included a men's basketball coach posing as a player and taking his examination.

This prompted Paul Dee, chairman of the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions, former athletics director and a sports-law professor at the University of Miami, to express his concern about the growing number of academic fraud cases. Cases of academic dishonesty and fraud in intercollegiate athletics have become all too familiar, as a related article on Inside Higher Ed today underscores. The NCAA’s stance is that these are unrelated and isolated incidences of impropriety and that its enforcement staff will root out the misconduct and punish the perpetrators.

A more critical analysis suggests that the recent patterns of serious institutional involvement in academic fraud may be related to predictable consequences of changes in the 2003 NCAA initial eligibility legislation that certify woefully underprepared athletes as qualified to compete in the college classroom.

This NCAA legislation is designed in such a way that an athlete can score very low on a standardized test, but, with a corresponding high school grade point average, can still qualify for NCAA practice, competition, and athletic-related financial aid at NCAA Division I institutions. The NCAA abandoned a minimum test score requirement altogether, so it is theoretically possible to qualify with no correct answers on the SAT or ACT. Because some colleges and universities have let the NCAA’s eligibility standards determine their own standards for admission, this has created a virtual open-admissions floodgate for academically deficient athletes to selective institutions.

Once enrolled, these athletes are introduced to elaborate academic support systems in multimillion-dollar facilities, staffed by a fleet of talented academic advisers, tutors and learning specialists assigned to ensure their eligibility, retention and collegiate survival. At academically and athletically competitive institutions, high-risk special admissions ventures yield high gains on the field or court coupled with the increasing temptation and risk of academic scandal. It should be no surprise that academically underprepared athletes who face their most intimidating experiences in the classroom sometimes choose academic dishonesty rather than face athletic ineligibility. Of late, zealous academic support professionals and faculty have been found to be collaborating in acts of academic dishonesty for the sake of maintaining athletes’ eligibility.

Since the introduction of the NCAA academic reform legislation of 2003, big-time institutions have devoted considerable resources to the eligibility and retention of athletes. A new cottage industry of academic support professionals has emerged on our campuses from this weakened initial eligibility qualification standard. Cadres of resourceful learning specialists, sometimes known as academic coaches or academic mentors, are now hired by athletic departments to manage the academic performance and progress of the increasing number of high-risk student athletes. Underprepared athletes with low test scores qualify for NCAA competition and college admissions by virtue of often-inflated high school grade point averages.

Although the levels of professional training and the professional duties of learning specialists vary, most learning specialists are dedicated to academic skill remediation for students. They operate under stressful conditions as they work with athletes with significant academic deficiencies and time constraints. These are athletes admitted to the university under the pretense that they have the necessary skills to be successful. Learning specialists who work with athletes who are admitted as NCAA qualifiers often discover that those with very low standardized test scores also suffer from severe reading deficiencies. Institutions with financial resources develop sophisticated academic support strategies to remediate these athletes as quickly as possible through mandatory remedial reading sessions with specialists, while all colleges focus on teaching academic survival skills, such as sitting in the front of class, attending regularly, developing relationships with faculty, and improving note-taking, test-taking, and time management skills.

The obstacles facing athletic department learning and reading specialists are considerable, and success is frequently dependent upon the level of players’ academic deficiency, their desire to achieve, and the time restrictions inherent in competitive intercollegiate athletics. All the while, athletic department academic advisers often search for less demanding and less reading-dependent coursework for their most at-risk athletes. Athletic department hired tutors work furiously to cram specific course factoids into overstressed athletes who are outmatched in the classroom competition.

There have been enormous changes in the complexities, devotion of financial resources, and the directions of academic support services since 2003. Unfortunately, the changes have evolved from academic enhancement and support of capable athletes to a focus on remediation of academic learning skills for an increasing number of athletes who are deficient in basic skills and lack academic orientation.

Underperforming athletes often select majors by default to maintain their eligibility. Some institutions create general studies and other multidisciplinary curriculums that permit large amounts of elective credits with little discernible educational value or career preparation. Other institutions funnel high-risk athletes into majors with the lowest entrance standards for lack of alternative. Incidents of institutional academic fraud appear to rise with the pressures and stress upon academic support personnel to maintain talented athletes in competition.

What are the costs to our institutional integrity and to the education and welfare of our at-risk student-athlete population? So long as athletes who struggle to read college textbooks meet minimum NCAA admissions standards and are admitted to and maintained in our institutions, there is no justification. It is naïve to believe that great athletes who meet minimum NCAA standards but are academically marginal will be denied admissions to the institution of their choice, when the university has so much to gain by having successful athletic teams.

The NCAA argues that its role is to set minimum standards for all institutions, whether they are selective or not, and that it is the universities’ prerogative to admit these students. Association officials argue that it is the institutions’ responsibility to admit students who are capable of performing at their campus.

Yet the minimum requirements established for initial eligibility should provide the baseline for the minimum academic learning skills students must possess to succeed in college. Faculty should trust their institutions to select prospective athletes who enroll with the minimum competencies for their campuses. However, most universities accept the NCAA’s minimum standards as their baseline criteria, and by doing so accept those students promoted by their coaches solely for their athletic talent. Following admissions committee rejections of promising athletes, appeals are typically made to the university president and routinely overturned.

A recent controversy at Colorado State University arose when a rejection of eight athletes on the basis of academic disqualification led to their admissions denial being overruled by President Tony Frank. Since December, 2010, their old admissions method of assigning numerical scores was replaced with a more “holistic” admissions approach, presumably to include more credit for athletic prowess.

This situation has been exacerbated by another recent trend in football and men’s basketball, in which head coaches offer talented high school freshmen and sophomores athletic scholarships well in advance of their taking standardized tests or undergoing institutional evaluation of their academic potential. The once-formal recruiting weekends hosted by athletic programs for prospective student-athletes pondering schools and athletic programs are becoming mere formalities for those students who have already committed their services.

To rely on college presidents, athletics directors, faculty athletics representatives or other institutional administrators to routinely and unilaterally deny predictably unsuccessful high-risk but already committed athletes against the wishes of celebrity coaches is utter fantasy. As long as coaches are paid extraordinary salaries for winning seasons, they will continue to recruit athletes primarily for athletic talent and rely on their academic support systems, learning specialists, and academic mentors to keep them eligible, retained in good academic standing, and even graduated.

I urge Mark Emmert, the new NCAA president, to consider the consequences of the association’s current initial eligibility standard. There is a need for a new standard that improves the likelihood of actual advanced learning, rather than merely eligibility and retention. Setting a minimum standardized test score that ensures reading comprehension and academic skill levels appropriate for college is essential.

An even better alternative may be to seek measurements of essential academic skills for college preparedness other than standardized test scores and incorporate them into initial eligibility standards. These measurements exist, such as the Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT4), and offer the promise of better-prepared athletes.

Games with athletically and academically capable athletes will continue to draw throngs of fans who will watch the mass spectacle of intercollegiate athletics. Most importantly, athletes may have a better chance for a meaningful education with the promise of satisfying careers outside of athletics. What may also be reduced is the trend of inexcusable academic scandals with institutional collusion humiliating our universities.


Gerald S. Gurney is president of the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics, and senior associate athletic director for academics and student life and assistant professor in educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Oklahoma.


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