NCAA’s Academic Policy for Recruits

The following piece is by Ben Malbasa, a head high school football coach in Cleveland, Ohio.

We have all seen the ads.  NCAA athletes compete in their sports as they transform into accountants, teachers, doctors, and other professionals while a voice reminds the viewer: “There are more than 380,000 student-athletes and most of them go pro in something other than sports.”  While certainly true, the airing of such ads during championship football and basketball contests featuring young men who often turn pro and do not remain in college calls to mind the Wizard of Oz telling Dorothy and her friends to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”  The fact that the NCAA chooses to run the commercials, despite such an obvious disconnect between the mission of the NCAA and the reality of the young men competing in its revenue-generating sports, shows just how important it is to the organization to continue to market the noble ideal of the amateur scholar-athlete.

Think of the hat as a tie-breaker

While the NCAA does not sponsor a football championship, the marketability of the scholar-athlete has been on constant display as the powers that control college football have worked to implement a play-off system.  During the past several weeks, college football fans have followed the meetings with great interest, and if future national championship games are as fiercely competitive as the negotiations that produced them, then football fans will be in for a great treat.  Unfortunately, sports administrators engaged in far less negotiation, and college football fans gave far less attention to the process resulting in the NCAA decision to raise the minimum standards for incoming freshmen beginning in August of 2016 (students beginning as high school freshmen this Fall will be the first group evaluated under the revised system).  As a teacher and head football coach at a college preparatory school, I find these changes to be frightening; indeed, it appears that the NCAA has chosen to sacrifice academic rigor on the alter it has built to the highly marketable image of the NCAA scholar-athlete.

For the sake of clarity, it is important to understand the current and proposed systems. Today, a student must earn at least a 2.0 GPA in NCAA approved classes and earn at least an average of 21.5 on the four sections of the ACT.  In other words, a student earning a 2.0 GPA must score in roughly the 55th to 60th percentile in order to be eligible to compete at the highest level of college sports.  Under the regimen that will begin in 2016, a student earning the minimum 2.3 GPA must attain an average ACT score of 23.25 in order to obtain full eligibility.  Such an ACT score would place the student in roughly the 70th percentile. 

Because the NCAA relaxes the standards as a student’s GPA increases, the best way to ensure eligibility is to earn the highest possible grades.  (Note: for those interested in examining the rule, Article 14, Section 3 of the NCAA Constitution, the NCAA Division I Manual is available for free download at:; also, effective summary materials are available from the NCAA Eligibility Center in the form of a quick reference sheet here.)

At first glance, the NCAA’s effort to raise academic standards seems beyond criticism.  After all, what sort of educator would oppose higher academic standards?  Close examination of the details, however, reveals flaws in the current and proposed policies regarding the calculation of a student’s GPA, and these flaws suggest that there will be substantial unintended consequences that accompany the decision to raise the minimum GPA.

Most obvious of the flaws under the current policy is the that NCAA’s system for calculating a prospective student athlete’s “Core” GPA gives too much power to the organization to govern academic content.  Under the NCAA’s system, high schools submit courses for approval.  While this seems like a logical safeguard to ensure fair comparison of students in different schools, the reality is that Algebra I at an elite, private college-prep school is not the same as Algebra I at a public school that serves economically disadvantaged students.  Moreover, the NCAA Clearinghouse does not accept courses “that prepare students for work or life” such as Personal Finance, Consumer Education, or other vocational or career tech courses.  The application of this principle, however, is absurd.  Recently, one of the top prep schools in the region had to offer its college-level Financial Modeling class with a disclaimer that it would not satisfy NCAA requirements.  Please, take a moment to contemplate the result of such superficial review: The NCAA grants credit to a correctly named course offered at a school that fails to meet state proficiency standards in 4 out of 5 subject areas and graduates only 55% of its students, and the NCAA denies credit for a college-level course at one of the elite schools in the nation.  Such application of NCAA policy does not inspire confidence.

Equally absurd is the manner in which the NCAA calculates the GPA of a prospective student-athlete.  The NCAA treats all grades as pure letter grades.  Under this system, no distinction is made between a C-Minus and a C-Plus; my experience as a teacher is that there is often a substantial difference between the quality of work that goes in to earning such disparate grades.  While one might think that this method of calculation results in no real injustice under the theory that students receive a little more credit for a B-Minus and a little less credit for a C-Plus, it is important to remember that the NCAA has set a C-Plus (2.3 GPA) as the minimum GPA required for a student-athlete to attain full eligibility as a freshman.  Even when a student earns a C-Plus in a core class, he or she is credited with a 2.0 and must make up ground in another class in order to stay on track for NCAA eligibility.

Independently, the NCAA’s approach to course approval and its calculation of GPA are troubling; combined, they form a policy that will drive athletes to avoid challenging classes and to leave rigorous schools.  An aspiring student-athlete hoping to earn an athletic scholarship cannot afford to struggle through a freshman Western Civilization class taught by the best, most demanding teacher in the school; earning a C-Plus, a grade that signifies slightly above average work, knocks the student off of the pace.  Even worse, if a school legitimately believes in its standards, and average students earn Cs, then athletes seriously pursuing an athletic scholarship have a substantial economic incentive to transfer into a less rigorous academic environment.  Teachers and coaches at rigorous schools will confirm that this happens every year as students and their families decide that they are better off in environments that offer easier courses and higher grades.

Such results hardly inspire confidence that the NCAA is genuine in its promotion of the scholar-athlete ideal; even in the most favorable light, the policy appears badly misguided.  Rather than encouraging young people to take on and meet academic challenges, the NCAA’s modified policy encourages aspiring student-athletes to pursue a path of least resistance.  Unfortunately, students taking such a path may qualify for an athletic scholarship but arrive on campus woefully under-prepared.  Perhaps such students will have telegenic smiles; this would seem their best hope to “go pro in something other than sports.”


  • Andrew Campbell

    The NCAA cant have kids in low income areas focusing on academics or scholarship in high school, that would drain them of their life blood.  They must provide loop holes for kids who aren’t academically prepared to get into these universities to feed the college football machine.  Heck, Ill just say it.  The big football schools aren’t taking these athletes because they’re brilliant  The fact is is that these kids feed the cash cow, and if the NCAA actually forces players to be student – athletes the whole thing collapses and lots of people lose a lot of money.  Its a system many of us ignore because…. lets face it I want to beat the hell outta the schools where my wise ass buddies are attending. This is America and we believe in winning almost as much as we do money.  College Football will always be dirty because of that.  At least those are my thoughts.