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January 9, 2009

From getting in to staying in - Compliance Corner focuses on continuing eligibility

By: Jimmy Robertson

The Compliance Corner in the last issue dealt with initial eligibility, or in simpler terms, the NCAA’s requirements that a high school prospect needs to meet before being admitted into a school and eligible to participate in a sport. Once a prospect meets those requirements, then comes the next challenge – staying eligible for competition, according to the NCAA’s continuing-eligibility guidelines.

These guidelines state that student-athletes must pass 18 hours combined over the spring and fall semester each academic year. This can be any combination of, say, 10 hours in the fall and eight in the spring or seven in the fall and 11 in the spring. But they must pass at least six hours per semester – in other words, they can’t pass all 18 hours in one semester and meet the requirement. They also cannot use summer school hours to meet this requirement.

At the end of their second year, they must declare a major. Then comes the tough part. All hours after the second year must be applicable toward a student-athlete’s major (declared degree program). Entering their third year, student-athletes must have met 40 percent of their degree requirements. Then entering their fourth year, they must have met 60 percent, and entering the fifth year, 80 percent.

All the while, they must maintain at least a 2.0 grade-point average.

“The goal is clearly graduation,” said Tim Parker, Tech’s assistant AD for compliance. “The rules are not as flexible as they once were. They’re more stringent. But if you remain eligible to compete each semester, it’s almost assured that you’re going to graduate in five years or less.”

Making sure that Tech’s student-athletes meet these continuing-eligibility requirements requires in-step coordination between the compliance team, the student-athlete academic support services (SAASS) group, the university’s registrar’s office, and of course, the student-athlete.

At the semester’s end, the compliance team works with the registrar’s office to make sure each student-athlete meets the NCAA requirements and gets certified for competition for the next semester (student-athletes are certified after each term). That makes the end of the semester a hectic time, particularly in December when the athletics department is trying to get athletes certified in time for post-Christmas competition (bowl games and basketball games).

The NCAA’s rigid requirements, though, haven’t affected Virginia Tech’s student-athletes very much. In fact, in 2008 (spring and fall), only two did not earn at least six hours in the most recent semester (out of more than 600 student-athletes) and only three did not earn at least 18 hours in the two most recent semesters. Only three did not meet the GPA requirement and nine did not meet the percentage of degree requirements (four of those nine were transfer students).

“I think one good thing about the rules are that they hold student-athletes accountable on an annual basis,” said Heather Robertson, coordinator of athletic academic eligibility and the primary person who works with the registrar’s office on the certification process. “When looking at these numbers, the percentage of degree is the most common issue because students who transfer to Tech have to use transfer credits to meet the requirement – and obviously not all degree programs from other schools match requirements within the same degree program here at Tech.”

“These rules demand academic consistency,” Parker said. “You have to accomplish something every semester, and the student-athletes know this up front. They are given the requirements in orientation their freshman year, and then the SAASS representative for each sport gives them the requirements annually. So everyone should be on the same page.”

Of course, like most NCAA regulations, there are some detriments. The NCAA’s continuing-eligibility requirements make it difficult for incoming transfers to immediately establish competitive eligibility unless the school has the degree program that the transfer was majoring in at his or her previous school. It also eliminates the “luxury” of having a terrible semester or year. But the big thing is that it hinders a student-athlete’s ability to change his or her major and still meet the hours and percentages requirements.

“But that’s not to say you can’t change majors and still maintain your eligibility,” Parker said. “If a student-athlete changes majors and runs into a problem, we can file a successful progress-toward-degree waiver with the NCAA, as long as we map out a reasonable academic plan to meet the goal of graduating within five years. The NCAA can be flexible on that.

“Fortunately, the NCAA’s continuing-eligibility requirements aren’t a big issue at Virginia Tech because our university’s requirements are as tough, or tougher. While there was some fear nationally when these stricter NCAA standards went into effect, I think nearly everyone involved with intercollegiate athletics sees them as beneficial now. Our graduation rates have improved since the new requirements were implemented, and we expect that long-term trend to continue.”

After all, that is the goal. And the NCAA is making sure that schools around the country know it.