NCAA May Reform Eligibility Rules

University Testing

After years of rebuffing critics, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is on the verge of overhauling its controversial, test-based, initial eligibility requirements. The current rule, known as Proposition 16, denies athletic scholarships and the ability to play interscholastic sports to entering students who fail to attain a minimum score of 820 (Verbal plus Math) on the SAT-I or 68 on the combined, four-part ACT college admissions exam. Applicants with high school grade point averages (GPA) between 2.0 and 2.5 must post even higher scores, up to 1010 on the SAT-I for students with a 2.0 GPA, in order to qualify.


FairTest and its civil rights allies have long criticized Proposition 16 and previous NCAA requirements for relying on non-validated, test score minimums which have repeatedly been shown to unfairly exclude otherwise-qualified African American student athletes (see Examiner, Summer 1987 and Fall 1994). While NCAA leaders have claimed such policies reflect higher academic standards, they have not been shown to increase graduation rates significantly.


The rules have been hotly debated at several NCAA conventions, but the association’s leaders have been able to block any meaningful changes in the rules, sometimes by very narrow margins (see Examiner, Winter 1994-95 and Fall/Winter 1995-96).


Frustrated by resistance to internal reform, FairTest helped initiate a law suit against the NCAA by several African American student athletes represented by Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (see Examiner, Winter 1996-97). After hearing arguments, Federal Judge Ronald Buckwalter struck down the NCAA rules, concluding that “the racially adverse impact caused by the SAT cutoff score is not justified by any legitimate educational necessity” (see Examiner, Spring 1999). But that decision was overturned on a legal technicality by a Court of Appeals panel which found that the federal regulations on which the suit was based had not been adopted properly.


Under the proposal now before the NCAA’s Management Council, the minimum SAT Verbal plus Math requirement would be set at 620 (52 on the ACT combined) for students with a 3.0 GPA or higher. While still technically a “cut-off,” the new minimum would be lower than the score posted by all but two percent of SAT test-takers. A revised sliding scale would apply to students with high school averages between 2.0 and 3.0. At the same time, the NCAA proposes to increase the number of core high school courses required for eligibility from 13 to 14 and institute tougher rules for progress toward college degrees for athletes who want to continue eligibility.


These changes are generally supported by reformers who have long argued for a system that determines athletic eligibility based on genuine academic performance, not test scores. The NCAA Management Council is expected to reach a decision on the package this fall.