Today there’s a greater emphasis on the performance of student-athletes in the classroom—thanks in part to academic reforms of the National Collegiate Athletic Association over the past decade—and there will be more “constructive transformations” in the next 12 to 18 months, according to NCAA president Mark Emmert, who spoke to the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics (N4A) on Saturday in Dallas.
“We have to make sure we keep our eye on the ball of what our business is, and it is in fact the nature of advancing student success on the field, in the classroom, and in life, and doing that in a context that is highly complex, with lots of competing forces and demands on it,” said Emmert, who took the NCAA’s helm in October 2010.
The complexities are indeed vast. For instance, a disproportionately high number of Historically Black Colleges and Universities are facing penalties for their performance on the latest round of Academic Progress Rate scorecards (APRs), which track classroom performance of teams. Yet their school presidents are not asking for a break. “One of the messages loud and clear from them was, ‘We don’t want lower standards. We want help in helping our young men and women perform better but at the same time we want to make sure we’re providing opportunities,’” Emmert said.
Likewise, Emmert said programs that are failing are often those that have the fewest resources. He said the NCAA is allocating grants from a $1 million pool to schools that are missing their APR targets to help them improve. “Whether that’s enough resources or not is unclear, but it is a step in that direction,” he said.
A number of potential reforms, meanwhile, could have significant implications for community colleges, Emmert said. Those schools could pick up more students if the academic requirements to play sports at an NCAA Division I or II college were raised. “That’s not a bad thing because [community colleges] are in many cases much better in dealing with students who have remedial education needs,” he said.
Emmert also stressed that initial eligibility standards are mere minimums and each school ultimately determines its own admission rules. “We’re trying to put in place standards for a broad range of institutions but at the end of the day individual institutions have to say, ‘We have a kid who reads at a third grade level and we’re not going to take him’ if that’s where the rubber hits the road,” Emmert said.
When universities do accept students who are wholly unprepared to handle academic rigors, advisors often face the task of remediating them as quickly as possible. “As universities have raised their admission standards and it’s become so competitive for the average student on campus, and the NCAA minimum standards of qualifying are relatively low, you have this tremendous gap,” said N4A president Gerald Gurney, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma. The classroom challenges can lead to conflicts with faculty and coaches, he added.
That’s problematic since, as discussed in one workshop, when resources are low it’s particularly important to have coaches support their players’ academic goals and for advisors to build relationships with faculty members. Identifying at-risk students early on—Bryant University advisers said they do so through an assessment during a June orientation—is also valuable for providing adequate academic support.
One of those Bryant advisers, Assistant Director-Academic Services for Student Athletes Aaron Dashiell, said Emmert’s presence at the event sent a message. “I think it shows his commitment to wanting to work with anyone and everyone who is committed to improving the educational process and to graduating our student athletes and moving them further along and having successful careers outside of athletics,” Dashiell said.
The N4A’s four-day convention drew 570 attendees, up from 400 last year. Katie Rasmussen, an academic advisor at Baylor University, was attending the annual gathering for the third time. She was among those who found this year’s sessions informative, including one about career counseling for students. Her daily challenge, she said, is getting at-risk students excited about school and helping them graduate. “Sometimes they don’t really see the end goal,” she said. “It seems like it’s so far away, so [it’s] keeping them motivated to keep going to school and work hard.”