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NCAA’s Eligibility Standards Miss the Mark, Researcher Says

While many Division I members have balked at new rules allowing multiyear scholarships and extra money for athletes, several substantive academic changes have gone through with relatively little resistance. Chief among them are policies keeping low-performing men’s basketball teams out of the NCAA tournament and stiffened initial-eligibility and transfer requirements.

In October, the NCAA passed a measure requiring incoming athletes to have a minimum 2.3 grade-point average to be eligible to play their first year (they previously needed a 2.0). NCAA leaders see the new rule as a “game-changer,” according to Todd Petr, the association’s managing director of research, and Todd Paskus, its principal research scientist. They will lead a discussion at this year’s NCAA Scholarly Colloquium on Tuesday looking at the effects of academic reform on college sports. “This policy ramps up academic expectations both on teams and individuals,” Mr. Petr says.

If the new rules were applied to the current class, some 15 percent of all athletes would have had to take an academic “redshirt” year. The policy would have an even more profound effect in football and men’s basketball: Thirty-five percent of football players and 43 percent of men’s basketball players in this year’s class would have had to sit out their first year of competition, if the rules were applied to them.

Although the NCAA raised the minimum grade-point average required for first-year competition, it kept in place its sliding scale for admissions. That allows students with extremely low standardized-test scores to be admitted, so long as their high-school grade-point averages are correspondingly much higher. At least one researcher says that is a big mistake.

Gerald S. Gurney, an assistant professor of adult and higher education and former head of academic services for athletes at the University of Oklahoma, says the sliding scale—which was introduced in 2003 as a way of opening up access to higher education—has contributed to a rise in the acceptance of students unable to do college-level work. That has put extra pressure on academic services’ staffs to keep them eligible, he says, and in some cases has contributed to academic fraud in big-time sports.

On Tuesday, Gurney will present findings from research he did with Carla A. Winters, an academic counselor in the Sooners’ athletic department, comparing specially admitted athletes at Oklahoma who would have been eligible under pre-2003 NCAA rules, which required a minimum SAT score of 820 or ACT score of 17, to those who attained eligibility under the new standards with lower entrance-test scores, offset by higher high-school grades.

Looking at 109 students over a three-year period, the sliding scale allowed a far less-academically-qualified set of athletes to be admitted. In fact, 10 percent more specially admitted players came in with severe learning disabilities, when compared to the specially admitted athletes who matriculated just before the NCAA’s change in standard.

“The bottom line is, the lower you go in test scores, the worse students are in basic reading skills,” says Gurney. “Is it the role of four-year institutions to teach students how to read?”

NCAA officials say standardized test scores, on the whole, have gone up since the introduction of the sliding scale, and that overall graduation rates in Division I—in particular those of African-American men’s basketball and football players—continue to rise. (Both have increased between three and five percentage points since 2003.)

NCAA research indicates that high-school grades are a much better predictor of college-level success than are test scores. And very few students score so poorly on the SAT. Of 25,000 entering freshmen in 2009-10, a total of 81 athletes scored below a 700 combined on the SAT.

“The group Gerry is claiming to be worried about represents about one-third of one percent nationally of all student-athletes,” says Petr.

Even if the numbers are small, Gurney says ill-prepared athletes can cause big problems for athletic programs—something he has seen first-hand.

“When you’re having to deal face-face with these athletes who have such severe difficulties—they can’t write, they can’t read—yet they have to get eligible, it’s the only thing they care about, that’s their ticket to future,” he says. “They’re so pressured, they have to cheat. Or fail.”

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