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The NCAA is destroying student-athlete education to turn a buck

And once again, it has no one to blame but itself

2020 NCAA Division I Football Championship
This f’n guy again
Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

In its zeal to retain non-profit quasi-antitrust status, the NCAA has bent over backwards the last several years to portray itself as student-friendly. We’ve seen hastily drafted NIL rules, grad transfer rules, cost of attendance rules, and now the omnipresent Transfer Portal completely revamp the landscape of roster development and retention.

But, it’s hard to say that the NCAA is actually doing anyone any favors here, aside from themselves. While the Portal has been a boon to several teams, as well as players languishing on depth charts or in bad situations, it’s hard to call it an unqualified success either.

This week came news of yet another rule being portrayed as a student-friendly initiative, but that does a grave disservice to students, and by implication punishes programs for the second- and third-order decision-making of 20-year-olds. Josh covered it a bit yesterday, but let’s recap:

The announcement came during SEC Media Days where the “It Just Means More” motto took on new meaning.

“Surprised at that? Absolutely surprised at that,” said Tennessee coach Josh Heupel after first hearing Thursday the NCAA had essentially just allowed athletes to transfer an unlimited number of times. “I think it only heightens the craziness to the transfer portal.”

That was a first reaction to the NCAA’s announcement that the Division I Council had recommended eliminating the restriction against players transferring multiple times. The NCAA Board of Directors is expected to rubber-stamp the recommendation Aug. 3.

The news comes not even a year into the NCAA’s new relaxed rules for one-time transfers.

Four teams in four years? Not at all implausible. But how does this negatively affect the student-athletes?

Ignore the collective-bargaining and agency aspect of this for a moment, set aside the APR implications, and even the fact that intangibles like perseverance and discipline get shelved for this de facto free agency, and instead focus on the NCAA’s core mission — one it wholly abandoning.

Our purpose is to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.

Emphasis added.

These transfer rules not only will not accomplish that mission statement, they will be deleterious to academic outcomes and overall student-athlete education. And we know that for a fact because we already know how bad the outcomes are for a single transfer.

Among students matriculating into college from high school, 76% go on to successfully complete a degree program over the next six years. Students transferring in from a Juco have both a more difficult time gaining admission (just 62%), and also in completing a bachelors education (65% for public 4-year, and 60% for privates). And for part-time students, the rate of completion is abysmal — 34% for private schools, 42% for publics, and 28% for private, for-profit colleges and professional programs. Generally, the weaker the academic background or lower the socioeconomic status of the student, the worse they performed.

Among those who make the jump straight from high school to college, the transfer outcomes are even worse than the leap from community college to four-year institutions. After transfer, just about 20% actually earn a degree on time, and only 43.3% of four-year-four-year transfer students complete a degree within six years. Independent students, those out on their own and without the benefit of parental assets, can expect to see those numbers halve. See generally, Kantrowitz, Mark “Who graduates from college? Who doesn’t?” (Cerebly, 2021). ASIN B09K9XJZ75.

But where this hits hardest is with student-athletes. Perhaps looking at basketball best illustrates this. Every year from 2017-2020, approximately 12.5% of all college basketball players transfered every year — and interestingly, 51% of those were “down transfers”, from different divisions or to 2-year institutions. However, after the advent of the transfer liberalization, we have seen a persistent and drastic rise in the number of D1 transfers. Whereas 25% of D1 players were likely to transfer over the course of a degree prior to liberalization, that number has risen to 36% over the last two seasons.

Student-Athletes across all divisions have a 69% graduation rate, however, in basketball that number is laughable. Just half of the NCAA tournament field have a graduation rate of 50%. And expected overall D1 graduation rates for basketball players is -36.4% versus the other student athletes. Overall, just 21.3% of college basketball players who transfer will earn a degree.

That effect is, in no small part, due to what we already know about poorer graduation rates among those of lower SES, from poorer academic environments, independent student transfers, and the negative effects of transfer in general between four-year-to-four-year degree programs.

And now, to avoid revocation of informal antitrust exceptions, to dodge regulation of labor, the NCAA has decided it is going to do an even greater disservice to kids by letting them transfer, penalty-free, as many times as they want to over the eligible five-year financial aid window.

This is madness of the first order and profoundly, morally revolting. The NCAA is setting tens of thousands of college students up for failure, ensuring that those from underprivileged SES who could benefit most from a degree do not get it, while touting it as a feature, rather than the intentional sabotage of educational opportunities.

Not everyone will go pro in their sport of choosing, but the NCAA is hell-bent on cranking out an entire generation of fry cooks. That’s not what this system was meant to be; that’s not what any of this was meant to do.

This is a broken system, in a broken institution, cranking out one myopic proposal after another — anything to make sure the gravy train don’t stop. And in the end, it will be the student-athletes who suffer the most.