Written by Corbett Smith
Attention high school freshmen: Drastically raised NCAA academic standards start with your class in 2016
Too many recruits are ill-prepared for rigors of college course work
For freshmen sitting in the audience of their high school’s national signing day ceremonies Wednesday, daydreaming of following a classmate’s path to an athletic scholarship, there’s an unseen hurdle looming for them to be academically eligible for college.
In October 2011, the NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors drastically raised the academic bar for the Class of 2016, raising the minimum core grade point average from 2.0 to 2.3, and requiring that incoming student-athletes complete 10 of the minimum 16 core courses before the start of their senior years. Students would still be able to receive a scholarship but couldn’t play in their first season in college, sitting out as an “academic redshirt.”
The NCAA’s own estimates found that these changes, if looking back at incoming recruits from the 2009-10 school year, would have prevented more than one-third of football recruits and two-fifths of men’s basketball recruits from being academically eligible as college freshmen.
While those figures are staggering, Kevin Lennon, the NCAA’s vice president of academic and membership affairs, said he believed high school freshmen would adjust.
“Historically, when changes have occurred, students have risen to the challenge,” Lennon said. “This is no different; this seems to be in the grasp of the young person.”
Ready for college
The rationale behind the shift is simple, according to Lennon. Universities and their presidents — who make up the NCAA’s board — want better prepared student-athletes.
“The numbers clearly show that those students who are better prepared in their first year in college, it increases the likelihood that they are going to graduate,” Lennon said.
Those on the academic side said they understood a need for a re-emphasis not just on eligibility, but on academic preparedness.
“What the NCAA’s been hearing from my profession is that these minimum standards aren’t enough,” said Brian Davis, Texas’ associate athletic director for football student services. “When students that just meet those standards come to campus, you are going to have issues — issues that will have to be addressed immediately at great expense of time, energy and resources.”
Neither Lennon nor athletic admissions officials at Texas or SMU believed that the early benchmark for core courses would be a significant problem for students. Core courses are NCAA-approved classes in English, math, science, history and various other subjects, including foreign languages.
Currently, the NCAA has no schedule for when its core-class requirement is met. Students who failed earlier classes can retake them in their senior years to meet the requirement. For example, a student can retake Algebra I and English II while taking Pre-Calculus and English IV. That can still occur under the new guidelines, as long as 10 courses are successfully completed heading into the senior year.
“That’s an academically sound approach,” Lennon said. “A vast majority of student-athletes are taking 18 to 20 core courses in their high school career. If that goal [of 10] isn’t being met, I think that’s a different, and bigger, problem.”
The GPA, however, will be a bigger sticking point, said Susan Vollmerhausen, SMU’s director of athletic admission and eligibility.
Raising the bar
The NCAA currently has a sliding scale for eligibility, combining GPA and a standardized test score. The lower the GPA (2.0 as the minimum), the higher required score; a higher GPA, conversely, lowers the required test score.
Vollmerhausen said some prized recruits — generally, in football and men’s basketball — would probably not be able to meet the new thresholds.
“The test score, as it is now with a 2.0, is a 1010,” she said, referring to the SAT I total. “Most of the time, you aren’t going to see a student struggling in school be able to make that 1010. We’ve had kids, even in this recruiting class, that we’ve told, ‘You’re probably going to have to go the junior college route.’”
Lennon said one of the proposed revisions to the new requirements, which will be looked at again in April at the next board of directors meeting, would be to lower the required test score to compensate for the higher minimum GPA.
Most high school coaches contacted said they knew little about the changes.
Skyline coach Reginald Samples said he had heard “bits and pieces,” admitting that he was too busy to focus on anything else but the upcoming signing day. Arlington Martin’s Bob Wager said he hadn’t heard anything from the NCAA, college coaches or his counselors.
Lennon said the NCAA has a initiated a “stepped approach” to inform the public. Last October, the NCAA relaxed its guidelines to allow colleges to contact potential student-athletes — some still in junior high — with letters containing largely boilerplate language regarding of the changes.
Davis said Texas currently uses its camps to inform young athletes about the new requirements and is working on how to implement a larger outreach program.
Follow Corbett Smith on Twitter at @corbettsmithDMN
Percentage of student-athletes entering Division I programs in 2009-10 who could not qualify under 2016 requirements:
All sports, 15.6 percent
Football, 35.2 percent
Men's basketball, 43.1 percent