Gerald Gurney’s appeal for higher minimum requirements for Division I student-athletes is seductive, but is it right?
Gurney, senior associate athletic director for academics and student life and an assistant professor of adult and higher education at the University of Oklahoma, has made it his personal cause to call attention to what he believes to be insufficient Division I initial-eligibility standards. After making the case in the March 10 edition of Inside Higher Ed, he was back with a warmed-over version of the same thing this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Gurney noted that the NCAA has strengthened and relaxed academic standards for the last 50 years. That much is true. The effort to find the fairest and most effective approach has been a process. The answers weren’t clear in the 1960s and 1970s as rules were liberalized, and they weren’t always clear in the 1980s and 1990s as rules were made more conservative.
The last wholesale change was in 1992 when Division I approved Prop 16, which substantially strengthened the provisions of 1983’s Prop 48. The major change since then has been to strengthen the requirement by adding more core courses. Those interested in more information on this subject may want to read my story from the winter 2008 issue of NCAA Champion magazine.
Despite the long-term trend of stronger requirements, Gurney is almost singularly focused on the elimination of the standardized-test cut score. That change was made after the NCAA was sued for the disparate effect that Prop 16 standards had on minorities and after NCAA researchers, experts from member institutions, representatives from the testing companies and paid consultants concluded that the test-score cut was not scientifically defensible.
Only one year of data on the overall (that is, graduation) success of those admitted after the elimination of the cut score are available, so it is premature to pronounce their success or failure. Still, the outcomes for the 2003 cohort in the Graduation Success Rate are promising when considered in the light of the twin goals of academic reform − which were to maximize graduation rates while minimizing adverse impacts on low-income and minority student-athletes. Specifically, looking at the 2003 GSR cohort, there were 400 more African-American student-athletes and 300 more African-American graduates than were in the 2002 cohort (or any previous cohort since the advent of Prop 16). The single-year GSRs for African-American student-athletes in the high-profile sports increased significantly from 2002 to 2003 – by three points in men’s basketball and five points in football.
Ultimately, Gurney’s pitch grossly misrepresents the purpose of the NCAA requirements in this area. They are nothing more than a nationally agreed-to minimum standard at which prospects are considered to be capable of doing college-level work. They must fit every Division I member – all the way from Harvard to the most economically disadvantaged, open-admission institution.
Despite the absence of any evidence that the post-cut-score cohort has adversely affected graduation rates (and some evidence to the contrary) and despite considerable evidence that high school grade-point averages are a far more reliable predictor of college success, Gurney continues to pound away. “Those students possess inadequate skills to manage college academics, creating a greater need for academic-support services at institutions already struggling with strained budgets, staffs, and faculties,” he wrote in the Chronicle.
Emphasizing the financial angle, he adds: “My own university spends more than $2 million annually for academic services for athletes, employing learning specialists, reading specialists, and tutors to ensure their success in the classroom.”
There is, of course, an answer to this: Institutions can be as selective as they like in their admissions. Just because the minimum standards permit a kid with a 450 SAT and a 4.0 GPA to be eligible doesn’t mean that a school has to take him. In fact, many places don’t.
Division I has chosen to keep opportunity open for as many young people as possible, but it has firmed up accountability through the Academic Performance Program. The new reality is that if institutions want to take chances, they need to follow through.
That may involve a complex evaluation of costs (time and money) and risks. They can manage those matters as they see fit, but institutional personnel should not blame the NCAA when their schools choose to get aggressive.