Chronicle of Higher Ed
April 9, 1999

Fewer Black Athletes, but More-Successful Black Students
POINT OF VIEW: Weaker NCAA Standards Won't Help Black Athletes

Fight Over NCAA Standards Reflects Long-Standing Dilemma

Which should be paramount: academic quality or the impact of rules on black students?


St. Petersburg, Fla. – The battle over academic standards for college athletes is being fought over people like Edmund Saunders.

A skinny, 6-foot-8 forward on the University of Connecticut's basketball team, Mr. Saunders's first season of college basketball came to a magnificent end last month. Mr. Saunders came off the bench to score four points and grab three rebounds in the Huskies' upset victory over Duke University in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I championship game here.

Mr. Saunders may be a first-year player, but he's a sophomore at Connecticut. Because he did not score high enough on the SAT or ACT to satisfy the N.C.A.A.'s standards (he wouldn't reveal his exact scores), Mr. Saunders sat out last season.

"It made me appreciate basketball more," he said. "Getting used to social life, to campus -- it really was helpful."

Proposition 16, the rule that kept Mr. Saunders out of basketball last year, is now in legal limbo. After a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled last month that the N.C.A.A.'s standards discriminate against black athletes, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit last week stayed the ruling, pending an appeal by the N.C.A.A.

The association plans to spend the spring and summer considering alternative standards, so that it can have a new plan in place by September 1.

The issues raised by the Proposition 16 debate are not new. Since universities began sponsoring intercollegiate athletics, they have squabbled over what standards, if any, they should use to insure that college athletes are students, too.

"If you talk to university presidents, like I do, you will see that they are committed to maintaining academic standards and academic integrity," said Graham B. Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University and chairman of the N.C.A.A.'s Division I Board of Directors. "Many of us remember the time 15 or 20 years ago when standards weren't in place, and none of us wants to go back to the 'bad old days.'"

The question, however, is whether the effort to raise standards is locking out too many black athletes who could benefit from a college education, according to John Chaney, men's basketball coach at Temple University.

"The vast majority of those disappointed youngsters [who didn't meet the standards] were black, and the N.C.A.A. legislated them out of college," said Mr. Chaney in an opinion piece in The New York Times last month. "How could distinguished educators, responsible for the futures of young people, have approved such a measure? Obviously, they weren't thinking about the young men I coach."

A few-hundred first-year athletes each year find themselves sidelined like Mr. Saunders. Those who are close to meeting N.C.A.A. standards are allowed to receive scholarships and practice, and those who are not close are forced to pay their own way, attend junior colleges, or stay out of college entirely. A disproportionate number are black: In 1997, 21.4 per cent of black prospective athletes were ruled ineligible, compared with just 4.2 per cent of white athletes, according to the N.C.A.A.

Over the past 16 years, the N.C.A.A. has steadily toughened academic requirements for athletes in an attempt to rid college sports of its image as a haven for dumb jocks who have no hope of graduating.

Under Proposition 16, athletes must achieve a certain score on the SAT or ACT in combination with certain grade-point averages in 13 high-school core courses, based on a sliding scale. An athlete with a grade-point average of 2.5 must score 820 (of a possible 1,600) on the SAT or 68 (of a possible 144) on the sum of the four components of the ACT. A player with a grade-point average of 2.0 must score 1,010 on the SAT or 86 on the ACT.

The N.C.A.A. began using standardized-test scores in the 1980s in order to minimize its dependency on high-school grades, Mr. Spanier said. High schools have varying standards, and high-school teachers or coaches can manipulate grades to the advantage of athletes.

"All of us know that there is such a phenomenon as grade inflation," Mr. Spanier said. "Standards differ wildly from one school to another and one state to another. If we lose the test score, we lose the one metric we have that does help level the playing field a bit in understanding someone's qualifications."

Proposition 16 is only the latest attempt by the N.C.A.A. to maintain academic standards. In 1965, the association established the "1.6 rule," which required universities to limit athletics eligibility to those students who were predicted to get at least a 1.6 grade-point average during their first year in college. Those predictions were based on how other students with similar test scores and high-school grade-point averages performed once they got to college, and predictions for each university were different. At the time, freshmen were ineligible for varsity competition, but the N.C.A.A. abolished that rule in 1972.

The next year, the N.C.A.A. abandoned the 1.6 rule for a flat requirement that athletes have a 2.0 grade-point average when they graduate from high school. That rule persisted until 1983, when, in response to public outcry about illiterate athletes participating in college sports, the N.C.A.A. passed Proposition 48. That rule, which went into effect in 1986, required athletes to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average in 11 core courses in high school, and to have scored above 700 (out of 1,600) on the SAT, or 15 (out of 36) on the composite ACT.

Since Proposition 48 went into effect, many more black athletes than white athletes have failed to meet the standards, and have been forced out of college sports for a year, or for good. The number of black freshmen on Division I teams fell 18 per cent, to 3,041, in 1986, the year Proposition 48 took effect. The number of white freshmen athletes actually grew slightly, from 9,048 to 9,135.

The N.C.A.A. does not have adequate data to confirm whether secondary schools have responded to the new rules by doing a better job of preparing black athletes for entrance requirements in the intervening years. If the schools were doing a better job, one would expect the number of black college athletes to have recovered from 1986 to the present.

Of athletes entering N.C.A.A. Division I colleges in 1996, the year the current standards took effect, 20.3 per cent were black. That represented a drop of 3.3 percentage points from 1995.

The number of athletes who were declared ineligible by the N.C.A.A.'s Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse, an office that certifies athletes' eligibility based on grades and test scores, rose sharply from 1995 to 1996. But fewer athletes were declared ineligible over the past two years, according to N.C.A.A. statistics. The trend held true for black, white, and Hispanic athletes, although a much larger proportion of black athletes was declared ineligible.

The N.C.A.A.'s academic requirements have clearly achieved one goal: Graduation rates for all athletes -- and for black athletes in particular -- have risen considerably since 1986. Fifty-seven per cent of freshman athletes who entered Division I universities in 1991 graduated within six years. Forty-four per cent of black athletes graduated. By comparison, for the class that entered college in 1985 -- the year before the N.C.A.A. implemented SAT and ACT requirements -- 52 per cent of all athletes, and 36 per cent of black athletes, graduated within six years. Both the number and the proportion of black athletes earning degrees has continued to climb in the years since.

In his decision last month in Cureton, et al. v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter ruled that, even though graduation rates were improving, the N.C.A.A.'s use of score requirements on the SAT and ACT was arbitrary and unfairly discriminated against black athletes. That position has long been held by opponents of standardized tests.

"The problem with using the SAT as a cutoff is that a student who scores 10 points lower is exactly the same as one who scores 10 points higher," said Jay Rosner, executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the New York-based test-preparation company. "We have the sorts of situations represented by the plaintiffs in this case, where they finished relatively high in their class, had relatively good G.P.A.'s, and low SAT scores. You can have students who do very well in the classroom -- but very poorly on standardized tests -- who do well in college."

The N.C.A.A. is considering three basic alternatives to the current standards under Proposition 16. Model 2, as it is known (Proposition 16 is Model 1), would lower the minimum cutoff score on the SAT to 720, and require corresponding higher grade-point averages in the 13 core courses to offset the lower scores. Model 3 would lower the SAT minimum to 600, and expand the sliding scale to require even higher grade-point averages.

Model 4 would do away with the minimum cutoff altogether, allowing anyone who has taken the SAT or ACT to play sports, as long as he or she achieved correspondingly high grade-point averages in core courses. Under Model 4, a student with a 400 on the SAT, its minimum score, could compete if he or she had a grade-point average of 3.25.

Model 4 has drawn the endorsement of Mr. Rosner; Andre L. Dennis, one of the Cureton plaintiffs' lawyers; and other experts. It permits the continued use of the SAT and does not draw arbitrary distinctions between students with very close test scores. But Cedric W. Dempsey, the N.C.A.A.'s president, said he thought university presidents and faculty members would be suspicious of admitting athletes with extremely low scores on standardized tests.

Basketball coaches and athletics officials attending the Final Four had a variety of thoughts on what sort of standards the N.C.A.A. should employ. Denny Crum, the men's coach at the University of Louisville, and Roy Williams, men's coach at the University of Kansas, both spoke in favor of eliminating freshman eligibility again. They noted, however, that the N.C.A.A. would also need to raise the limit on men's basketball scholarships from the current 13 to 15 or 16, so that coaches could field competitive teams even with freshman athletes on the bench.

"There's a window to discuss that," said James A. Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten Conference. Mr. Spanier of Penn State, however, said that the proposal was unlikely to gain much support among college presidents.

Coaches also spoke in favor of placing more emphasis on the N.C.A.A.'s requirements for continuing progress toward a degree. Currently, the N.C.A.A. requires that athletes complete 25 per cent of the coursework toward their degree before beginning their third year of college competition, and 50 per cent of coursework before their fourth year of competition.

Harry Edwards, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, said the N.C.A.A. should strengthen those requirements by providing financial incentives to universities that keep athletes on track to graduate. Universities owe it to athletes to insure that they get an education, he said.

"There's no question that the challenge is there, but colleges and universities are making millions of dollars off of these young people's football and basketball abilities," he said.

However, as Mr. Spanier pointed out, university presidents are unlikely to scale back entrance requirements for athletes.

"Almost everyone believes that academic integrity is extremely important and that some uniform standard for initial eligibility is necessary," he said. "Today, on average, student athletes graduate at a higher rate than the rest of the student body. That is a goal higher education should not abandon."

Suggs, Welch. "Fight oner NCAA standards reflects long-standing dilemma." Chronicle of Higher Education. 9 Apr 1999. For Fee$$