Division II Academic Proposals Need Careful Review

Academics

NCAA Division II student-athletes graduated at a 55% rate in the most recent (2012) NCAA report (A student-athlete is counted as graduated if they complete their degree requirements within six years of initial enrollment).  The overall student-body graduation rate for the same time period was 48%.  This seven percentage point difference in favor of the student-athletes is slightly better than the most recent four years combined, so the trend is student-athletes are putting some distance between themselves and the general student-body.

This is good news right?  Apparently not good enough.  This month the Division II Presidents’ Council approved a report from the Academic Task Force recommending a number of changes to the academic requirements for Division II student-athletes.  These changes will go to the membership for a vote at the January 2014 NCAA Convention.  As a whole these recommendations reflect a dramatic change to the standards that, according to the recent numbers, have been working well.

The most significant change is an increase in the number of credit hours required each year to maintain “progress-toward-degree,” or eligibility.  The current rule is a student-athlete must earn 24 credit hours over the course of one academic year; the proposed rule would increase that number to 27. At the same time, the concept of “averaging” would be eliminated.  The Averaging Method says that if, for example, you earn 27 hours your freshman year and 21 your sophomore year, the average of 24 meets the eligibility requirement.  Eliminating that option would mean that same student-athlete would be ineligible due to only passing 21 hours in the most recently completed academic year (three short of the required 24).

There are serious questions I have with this.  First, what problem is Division II attempting to solve?  Graduation rates are significantly better than the general student-body and getting better.  So with everything else going on within the NCAA right now it’s hard to see why this is at the top of the priority list.  My best guess is its not so much trying to solve a problem as it is trying to improve the graduation rates of student-athletes above and beyond what they already are.  That’s a worth cause to be sure, but is withholding student-athletes from competition the best way to promote it?  A quote cited in the NCAA’s own story about these proposals is concerning:

“One, states are increasing(ly) tying a portion of a public university’s appropriation to persistence and graduation rates,” he said. “Those institutions with higher persistence and graduation rates, holding all other factors constant, are provided higher levels of funding than are those institutions with lower persistence and graduation rates.

“Two, components of the rating often utilized to rank universities are persistence and graduation rates.  The higher the rates, holding all other factors constant, the higher the ranking and, presumably, the easier it is to recruit students.” – Pat O’Brien, West Texas A&M University President and President’s Council Chair

It seems borderline outrageous that student-athletes who already graduate at a higher rate than the student body are being threatened with their eligibility for what appears to be more state funding and a better ranking in U.S. News.  The fact universities have leverage over student-athletes they don’t have over any other student shouldn’t be a license to place the entire burden of a campus’ graduation rates on their shoulders.  Are benefits or privileges  being withheld from non student-athletes who don’t pass 27 hours in a year?  Are there increased investments in programs to assist student-athletes in attaining these new standards?  The answer to both questions in most cases is of course no.  The phrase for this in government is “unfunded mandate.”

The other major question I have about these proposals is the financial impact on the student-athletes.  The Division II scholarship model is not like Division I where the number of hours you enroll in is irrelevant.  Many Division II student-athletes are receiving stipends which do not even cover the cost of the 24 credit hour year that satisfies the current rule, let alone the additional hours they will now have to enroll in to satisfy the proposed standards.  Will scholarship funds be increased to cover the new requirements?  I highly doubt it.  Sure if all goes well and the student-athlete graduates in four years instead of four and a half or five they will save some money on the back-end.  But in a month-to-month financial situation many student-athletes won’t be able to afford the additional funds needed to cover the extra hours they must now take each term.

University staff members, coaches and student-athletes should read all the new academic proposals very carefully, and review them with each stakeholder group on campus before voting takes place in January.  Raising academic standards may sound like a reasonable method of improving graduation prospects for student-athletes.  However, I submit that the quickest way to push student-athletes out of school (and thereby negatively affecting the graduation rates) is to remove their ability to compete, and make it less affordable for them to attend.  These proposals have the potential to do both, if they are not complimented with new investment and support in the way of both academic and financial assistance.  And nothing so far suggests that assistance is coming.

Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanielHare.

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