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The NCAA's New Math: Academic Standards & Their Impact On College Football/Basketball

The NCAA's next reckoning may need to be on its own academic standards.
The NCAA's next reckoning may need to be on its own academic standards.

Behind the rubble and smoke coming from State College, PA (and soon, you too Miami), the NCAA quietly made one of the biggest rule changes in the past several years. They significantly upped the minimum academic standards needed to be eligible for athletics, while exposing again some nasty little truths about public education in America, and raises some very difficult questions about the role we want college sports to play. ESPN did a great write up of the changes yesterday. I strongly encourage you to open another tab and read it real quick. It's okay. I'll wait.

Are you ready now? Lets break down what this means, since the implications are huge. Bigger than any recruit we've signed in the past year. Bigger than any non conference schedule arrangement, and in the long run, potentially bigger than even the sanctions at Penn State.

First, the basics. Right now, a student must have a GPA of at least 2.0 over 16 Core Subject Classes. Core classes, as defined by the NCAA, include 4 years of English, 3 of Math, 2 of Science, and a host of electives. Students also need to score at least a composite score of 86 on the ACT, although this is on sliding scale, depending on GPA (so a student with a 2.4 GPA could score a 71 composite).

Effective with the class of 2016, the NCAA is raising the stakes a little. Freshman will now need to have a 2.3 GPA, and JUCO transfers will need a 2.5. Students must also have passing grades in 10 of the 16 core classes before the start of their senior years. Apparently, students were rushing to get eligible over summer school, and taking multiple years of English, or Algebra 1 and 2 at the same time (which would drastically reduce the likelihood of actually retaining any of that content knowledge).

At first glance, this shouldn't seem too bad right? Anybody who went to college right after high school would have vastly exceeded those expectations. Even a student with a 2.3 and a 20 overall on their ACT would not get into any non-open enrollment college in the US on their academic merits.

But the NCAA did a study on how many student athletes might be impacted by these changes, and the results are fairly staggering.

According to the NCAA, 15.3% of all student athletes across D1 would not be able to meet the new standards. 35.2% of all football players enrolled in 2009-10 wouldn't be able to meet them, and a whopping 43.1% of all men's basketball players would fall short. For some colleges, it isn't hard to imagine that nearly their entire basketball team, or defensive backfield, would be unable to suit up for competition.

This should raise a lot of questions. The disparity between sports should be easily explained by the radical differences in educational quality by class in the US. Scholarship pools for sports like gymnastics or water polo are substantially less likely to draw from poor inner city and rural areas than basketball or football. Those who are unfamiliar with the student achievement gap between well off and impoverished schools should check out the campuses of places like New Albany and Upper Arlington, and compare them to Vinton County, or the east side of Columbus, or check out some of the non-profits, like Teach for America, that work to fix this sort of thing.

Another question might be, do these students even belong in college anyway? Let's be honest. If you have a 2.0 GPA in your core classes, and a sub 21 ACT, you are not ready to handle coursework at The Ohio State University, no matter how fast you can run the 40 yard dash. You really wouldn't be ready to handle coursework at most D1 universities, without significant remedial help. A non-athletic student would be shipped off to Ohio State-Newark to retake high school geometry, and be taught the finer points of crafting a five paragraph essay, without the harsh glare of the spotlight, or the pressures of catching up and playing sports at a high level.

At least one other person agrees with me. Gerald Gurney, a former president of the National Association for Academic Advisors for Athletics and associate athletic director for academics at Oklahoma says:

"That's what I've been saying for many, many, many years," Gurney said. "Why do we need an army of learning specialists at our schools? Why do we need to remediate athletes so that they can learn how to read beyond the fourth-grade level? Is that appropriate? Is that what college is supposed to be about? I don't think so."

Others argue that given the systemic differences in school quality, athletics provide a legitimate passage to college, and without it, they would never have a chance to academically catch up. Surely there are plenty of stories of students, who under the careful help of professors and academic support specialists, caught up and earned their degree.

Even coaches who agree that focusing on improving academic achievement is an important goal are concerned about the changes. Kansas Basketball coach Bill Self wonders if the APR (which has it's fair share of legitimate critics) creates double punishment for programs, or creates some negative side effects.

With the APR penalties -- and I am 100 percent against the APR -- why do we need so much [Eligibility Center] stuff?" Self said. "The penalties are there. The APR tells the president and the admissions office, 'If you admit this person, he better be able to make it.' No coach out there is a fan of the APR. But in my personal opinion, shouldn't it be used to look at schools' success rates? To me, it's like a double jeopardy".


On the flip side, the push to retain eligibility has never been higher. Athletes want to compete and coaches want to avoid APR penalties, but while that all sounds well and good, [associate athletic director at Northern Illinois Christian Spears] said it is creating a culture in which athletes are "majoring in eligibility".

Whats the solution? Do we let the proverbial 'free market' decide the minimum for academic eligibility, and then just penalize colleges with poor scores, creating an incentive to police themselves? Is raising the stakes on student athletes unfair when the system may be unfairly stacked against them? Certainly this sounds more in the wheelhouse of the NCAA than their more newsworthy actions of late.

I don't think you can legislate students into high performance, at least, not by itself. Whatever pressures we can place to help raise achievement are good ones though. Hopefully, coaches, students, schools, and staffs can find ways to raise the bar before more than a third of their players find themselves academically ineligible.

That's the most important question of the day. Here is hoping we're up to answering it. It's way more important than diagramming spread offenses after all.