Education and Athletics

IU basketball is back! Yes, we are ranked #1 in virtually every poll. Yes, we have the odds-on favorite to be national player of year in Cody Zeller. Yes, we have the realizable goal of winning our 6th national championship. But what about student-athlete academics?

Coach Sampson left the program in shambles academically, with a team GPA average of 2.18 after the spring semester of his final year at IU. Coach Crean, on the other hand, has made a commitment to academics. With our men’s basketball team averaging a 3.16 GPA only two years after the departure of Sampson, which compares favorably to the overall undergraduate GPA, especially considering the extra time commitment of our players, it appears Coach Crean has righted the ship. This renewed focus on academics has helped bring back the tradition of IU basketball excellence, both on and off the court.

In response to the common perception that college athletes do not stack up favorably to non-athletes, the NCAA enacted stricter minimum admissions criteria for students who compete for their university.  Starting in the 2016 academic year, the NCAA will require newly admitted students to have a GPA of at least 2.3 in core courses, up from 2.0 in years prior, while also increasing minimum SAT/ACT scores. The logic behind this policy change is to encourage academic achievement in high school by requiring students take at least 10 core courses deemed academically essential while balancing school and sports. Part practice for managing the unique circumstances of collegiate athletics, part weeding out process, the new policy seeks to create an environment in which due attention is given to learning.

There are problems, though. At this point, the NCAA has not announced a plan to help high school athletes meet these new requirements. And unless coaches, teachers, and administrators make a concentrated effort to have students meet the core course requirement, a student might simply not qualify due to a lack of knowledge of the changes.  Student athletes must meet these standards but might not have the means to do so, which is similar to the mandates found in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

A top-down approach, NCLB requires schools, districts, and states meet Academic Yearly Progress standards, measures of improved standardized test scores, to be in compliance with the foundational federal education law or face punitive actions, primarily funding cuts. Of course this is not directly analogous to NCLB—think slant rhyme, not rhyme—given that collegiate student athletes self-select to participate in collegiate athletics, but the principle applies. Requirements without means to achieve them are aspirational and, therefore often ineffective, while possibly leading adverse unintended consequences like teaching to the test or other forms of goal displacement.

A major question, then, is what effect this new policy will have on secondary education. One possibility is explored in a recent ESPN article. There is a growing trend in high school athletics to forgo GPA requirements when determining a student’s eligibility to compete. It is argued that, by allowing academically underperforming students to participate in sports, they will become more engaged in school and less likely to drop out. In many circumstances, this approach will keep students in school, but it may ultimately do a disservice to students on aggregate by lowering expectations or by giving an unfair competitive advantage to students who are athletes, but not student-athletes. With extracurricular activities dominating books in many schools already, lowering or outright eliminating minimum academic standards will, in all likelihood, produce some undesirable, unforeseen consequences.

Thankfully, our Coach, Coach Crean, is committed to basketball and academic achievement. Let’s hope the new NCAA admissions policy keeps the pipeline of top athletic and academic high school recruits flowing into Bloomington. Go Hoosiers!

Mike Poletika

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