I’m pretty sure the National Collegiate Athletic Association doesn’t want college athletes — or the athletics programs supporting them — to cheat their way through college. However, this article at Inside Higher Ed raises the question of whether some kind of cheating isn’t the best strategy to give the NCAA what it’s asking for.
From the article:
[M]any agree that the climate has changed in college athletics in ways that may make such misbehavior more likely. And it has happened since the NCAA unveiled its latest set of academic policies that raised the stakes on colleges to show that their athletes perform well in the classroom while simultaneously lowering the requirements freshman athletes must meet to become eligible initially.
Largely as a response to sagging graduation rates for football and basketball players, the NCAA put into place several years ago new academic rules that require colleges to report each term whether their athletes are on progress toward a degree — with penalties awaiting those whose students aren’t progressing and aren’t performing.
At the same time, the NCAA reversed its previous approach of continually raising initial entrance requirements and began allowing students with SAT scores as low as 400 (or a corresponding ACT score) to enroll so long as their high school grades were high enough. That move appeased critics of the standardized test score requirement who said it adversely affected minority students.
In the years since the changes, many have expressed concern that the combination of heightened academic expectations and lowered entrance regulations would put the campus employees responsible for providing academic support to athletes in a tough spot, asked to help a growing number of marginal students — potentially at all costs.
First off, a quick question: are those combined “SAT scores as low as 400”? Back in the ’90s, when I was working as an SAT tutor, to get a 200 on the SAT math or verbal you essentially had to answer every question incorrectly — theoretically, you got a higher score for leaving them all blank. Has that changed?
If not … yikes.
But on to the central issue. The NCAA says colleges and universities have a responsibility to ensure that their student athletes make progress toward their college degrees. On its face, this is a good thing — student athletes ought to get their college educations, just like their classmates who happen not to be athletes.
Meanwhile, the NCAA lowers the standardized test scores (but not high school grades) required of students entering college athletics programs. Maybe because of my time as an SAT tutor, I don’t regard the SAT as an instrument that delivers utterly reliable information about a student’s academic potential or intelligence. (SAT scores do seem to reflect a student’s familiarity with the test format and the best strategies for tackling the different sections, which is why test preparation can make a difference in those scores.)
Still, the SAT scores might provide some rough way to calibrate what an “A” or a “B” in one high school amounts to compared to the same grades in another high school. And a combined SAT score of 400 suggests something worrisome — maybe lack of preparation for foreseeable hurdles on the way to college, maybe a lack of focus on academics, maybe even serious test anxiety. Any of these could be a problem down the road for the high school athlete trying to become a college athlete.
Indeed, the colleges and universities identify the lowering of the entrance requirements for student athletes has led to “a growing number of marginal students”. But maybe the NCAA lowered the entrance requirements with the hope that good colleges and universities could teach these marginal students, helping them to develop the academic skills and capacities they need to rise from the margins to the middle (or better) of the academic pack.
That would be pretty cool. But it’s not clear that it would be a likely outcome unless sufficient academic resources were directed at this project. You’d want instructors with a good grasp of how to make remediation work, support for the student athletes in developing effective study skills (and writing skills, and information literacy skills, etc.), and enough time for the student athletes to be able to assimilate and master all of this.
Except that the nature of collegiate athletics seems to be that most of your hours go to the team — to practices, training sessions, road games scheduled during midterms or finals. An excellent student would find such demands on his or her time challenging (as I know from my experience with students who were excellent students and student athletes). For a marginal student, the number of hours in the week just aren’t sufficient to meet the time demands of being an athlete and those of becoming anything but a struggling student.
And here, I can’t help but think that collegiate athletics programs slip into viewing student athletes as mere means rather than as ends in themselves.
The athletics program’s goal is to produce winning teams. One of the constraints on that goal is that they must also demonstrate that the students on those teams are making satisfactory progress toward their degrees. This would not be such a problem if the athletics program also took student athletes’ academic progress as a worthy goal in itself — one that might even trump the goal of having a winning team. Because surely, taking the student athletes’ education seriously would make certain strategies for meeting NCAA requirements (like helping the students cheat or funneling them all to Mickey Mouse courses that they will pass even if they never attend or do any of the coursework) absolutely out of bounds.
And even if those running the athletics program recognize that there are lines they ought not to cross (like cheating on coursework for students) in managing their student athletes, it seems that they may be conveying the message to those student athletes that their primary responsibility is to be athletes, and the student-stuff is a necessary extra burden that comes with being an athlete in the collegiate context. An athletics director quoted in the article describes the message the students may be getting like this:
“For many programs, the recruiting pitch is, ‘We have a great academic support system and everyone graduates,’ ” [East Carolina athletics director Terry] Holland said. “Maybe what the athletes are hearing is, ‘You’re going to do the work for me. It may not be fraud, but I won’t have to do as much.’ ”
Folks in athletics are good at working out strategies. If you give them a set of rules for scoring, they’ll work out what they need to do with what they have to score.
If the most realistic way to “score” as far as meeting NCAA regulations involves diluting the quality of the education student athletes receive, it should be no surprise that some athletic programs will decide on that strategy. If the NCAA is really committed to ensuring that collegiate athletes get the full benefits of a college education, perhaps there’s good reason to look at how the regulations on the books are really affecting how the game is played on the ground.