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Grad School Dilemma

Should athletes with undergraduate degrees be allowed to play where they please? DIII members remain split

An athletics director from the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference recently approached its commissioner, Gary Karner, with a dilemma: A new graduate student who had not previously been an athlete received her undergraduate degree from another school. She hoped to try her hand at tennis. Could the commissioner help?

No, Karner had to tell the administrator. His hands were tied. “Which seems ludicrous,” he says, “but that’s what the rule is.” 

Those situations have been at the heart of a debate that has simmered for several years: Should students who have graduated and have remaining eligibility be permitted to play at the Division III school of their choice? Currently, they can only participate at the institution where they received their undergraduate degree. (If they graduated in less than four years and maintained at least a 3.0 GPA as an undergraduate, they can apply for a waiver that would permit them to play elsewhere.)

But some Division III members are hoping to change that. Because proponents like Karner believe easing restrictions in Division III would alleviate headaches for athletes and coaches alike, his conference and the Little East Conference have co-sponsored a 2017 NCAA Convention proposal that that would permit graduate and postbaccalaureate students with remaining eligibility to compete at the school of their choice, mirroring rules already in place in Divisions I and II.

The proposal’s adoption may not be a slam dunk, however. The Management Council has supported the proposal, but the Division III Presidents Council voted to oppose it during its fall meeting, citing concerns regarding competitive balance, the division’s philosophy and worries that students would make graduate-school decisions based on athletics, not academics. “We wrestled with it,” says Alan Cureton, chair of the Presidents Council and president of the University of Northwestern-St. Paul, “quite heavily.”

This isn’t the first time the concept was floated. Nearly three years ago, the Division III Interpretations and Legislation Committee put forward a similar proposal that would have eased restrictions on graduate students.

“While it is part of our mission to have Division III athletics be a four-year undergraduate experience, times have changed and maybe the spirit of the legislation needs to change with it,” Jason Fein, then-committee chair and current athletics director at Drew University, said at the time. “The current legislation says that they have to go back to the same school. Does that make sense for us now?”

At that time, the Management Council believed it did. It shot down the proposal because student-athletes might make life-changing graduate school choices for the wrong reasons. Still, the discussion didn’t die. Karner says conference commissioners have remained engaged on the issue as they hear anecdotes about graduate students barred from moving to a new school to compete – limitations that are not placed on undergraduates. “To put that additional restriction on this subpopulation of student-athletes, a population that I would argue has achieved what they hold most dear in Division III — an undergraduate degree — is counterintuitive,” Karner says.

But the Presidents Council also worries about competitive disadvantages for schools without graduate programs. It fears programs may stack the deck by recruiting a stockpile of graduate students. The group’s primary concern, though, is that the legislation conflicts with the Division III philosophy statement, which says institutions should focus on intercollegiate athletics as an undergraduate endeavor.

“We want to protect that primary, four-year experience for the student,” Cureton says.

The proposal likely would affect a relatively small number of athletes. While the number of Division I graduate transfers has nearly tripled from 2011 to 2015, NCAA research has found that they represent only one-third of 1 percent of all Division I athletes. Proponents argue a comparable proportion would take advantage of the change in Division III. “It’s a small population of students,” Karner says. “To suggest this is some sort of seismic shift in the competitive balance in DIII, I think, is greatly exaggerated.”

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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