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No, the NCAA didn't just nuke academic standards for athletes

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No, the NCAA didn't just nuke academic standards for athletes

Amid the staggering amount of sports news over the last few days, from thrown garbage in Tennessee to the WNBA Finals to uh, whatever REALLY happened at LSU, you'll be forgiven if you missed a press release from the NCAA.

On Friday, the NCAA announced their Standardized Test Score Task Force recommended the organization eliminate standardized test score requirements from initial eligibility standards. In plain English, this means that the Task Force recommends athletes would no longer have to post a minimum ACT or SAT score to be eligible to play.

I think what actually just happened here has been misconstrued a little bit, mostly by fans, but occasionally also by reporters. Initial eligibility standards was actually something I spent a fair chunk of the summer researching for a newsletter I never ended up writing, so perhaps I can help give some context here.

So is this official now? No athlete ever has to take the ACT again?

No, not yet. Technically, this is just a task force recommendation. Various divisional legislative bodies will consider this recommendation in February. I think the odds are very good that this eventually becomes policy, but the bill has yet to become a law, so to speak.

Why would any task force recommend this? Isn't this sort of coming out of the blue?

It isn't out of the blue. A major reason to consider this legislation, according to athletics personnel I've spoken to, is that increasingly, colleges themselves don't require these tests for regular students. Consider this story, from 2019:

“There are a number of things merging that pose a significant threat to standardized admissions tests,” said Michael Nietzel, president emeritus of Missouri State University, who writes frequently on higher education.

One in four institutions no longer requires these tests for admission, for example, Nietzel said. Combined with tutoring that wealthy families can afford, extra time their kids are more likely to get than lower-income classmates and downright cheating, he said, “they’ve lost their luster as a common yardstick.”

Complications from COVID pushed dozens of other universities to embrace test-optional admissions, since actually taking the test wasn't always possible for students. Some of those schools are expecting to make test optional admissions a permanent feature.

If some of the largest public university systems in the country, like the University of California system, aren't using standardized tests, then it doesn't make as much sense to mandate them as part of a national system. If, as the NCAA still tries to claim in court filings and in political pleas, college athletes are still just regular college students, then NCAA minimum standards should mirror those that member schools use.

The same equity concerns about standardized tests (that they disproportionately benefit wealthier students) are also of concern to college athletics administrators. It's why this specific Task Force recommendation was also part of the NCAA's plan to Advance Racial Equity. In fact, it was one of the few parts of that plan with any sort of specifics.

Are only the biggest programs supporting this recommendation? What kind of school wants this?

Over the summer, I talked to athletic department staffers at a few different kinds of schools....small budget low-majors, academically selective Big Ten programs, private schools, etc. I was asking about how they'd recommend the APR be changed, and virtually every school I talked to said they would support ditching the ACT/SAT.

As best as I can understand now, this proposal has support from a broad coalition of schools. If I understand the argument correctly, the idea of letting the NCAA establish curriculum requirements, or allowing them to get into the weeds into institutional academic decisions would be completely unacceptable to membership. After all, the last thing Texas wants is Hofstra telling them their math classes aren't rigorous enough. If a school thinks their support systems are strong enough to admit a student who didn't score well on the ACT, well, why should that be a national issue? That's what Home Rule is all about.

So does this mean schools are just going to admit a bunch of potted plants? Are academic standards completely out the window?

The short answer is no. The long answer....is probably a more complicated no. Let me explain.

The standardized test requirement wasn't the only metric the NCAA used to establish academic benchmarks and monitor progress. There's also the APR, which tracks how well programs are making sure athletes are advancing towards a degree. The APR is currently being reviewed and is likely to undergo changes (perhaps significant ones), but it is unlikely all academic measurement tools will completely go out the window. As it stands now, athletic programs could earn extra money for very high levels of academic achievement, and could face postseason sanctions if their athletes do not progress towards degrees.

If schools still need to advertise their graduation rates, and still face some series of carrots, sticks, and public pressure, there will be an incentive to not admit 30 4th graders a year for their football recruiting class.

It's also worth pointing out that schools are welcome to impose minimum standards above and beyond whatever the NCAA establishes.

In fact, many schools already do this, including programs that are absolutely trying to compete at an elite level. Many blue-blood college football programs, like Notre Dame, Stanford and Michigan, essentially do not recruit JUCO football players, even if they are very good college football players, out of concern that they might not be academically successful, and thus, at risk of hurting the school's APR. Other programs, like Georgia Tech and Wisconsin, may have core curriculum requirements or require HS coursework above what the NCAA might impose. Schools are still free to do that in the future, even without an ACT score mandate.

Okay, so what's the long answer?

The long answer is that there is a difference between a college education and a college degree.

The APR, and likely whatever academic measurement tool replaces or augments the APR, focuses on whether an athlete is progressing towards a degree. It doesn't offer an opinion about the validity or rigor of the athlete's coursework. There's nothing stopping a school from admitting a less-academically prepared athlete, encouraging them to take easier classes, give them tons of tutoring tools, and hand-hold them towards a degree. This practice can sometimes be called "edibility management." In my opinion, this NCAA Task Force recommendation has nothing to do with this practice. It will likely continue either way.

It is my personal hope, after the last few years of the collective college sports internet and policy apparatus focusing all their energy on the economic exploitation of athletes, that we shift our attention to the academic side...and ask how we (the media, fans, the NCAA, schools, etc) can make sure that athletes actually receive an education, not just a credential. That they are given the flexibility to take the classes they actually want, the academic and cultural experience they actually want, and the resources to meaningfully succeed (and also fail, if need be).

That's a very complicated question, and one outside the scope of a single newsletter that is already 1,200+ words long. If you want to read more about those issues right now, you might like this newsletter I wrote about an excellent book on the UNC academic scandal.

Does Matt think this is a good policy?

Yes, I think so. If colleges in general are moving in this direction, I think it is a good idea to err on the side of opening college opportunities to potentially more people. But I don't think there is great dignity in bringing in an athlete who is nowhere near prepared for college level work, and then not actually teaching him.

That becomes a problem about execution, and I suspect that's a different newsletter.

But the TL;DR here is that nothing actually changed since Friday, and if this policy recommendation does happen, there are some good reasons behind it.

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