So every year we all experience the same cycle. Some high school football, basketball, field hockey player (okay, so probably not field hockey) commits to our school and everyone gets excited at the new prospect and how they impacted our recruiting ranking. Then a few months later, news starts to trickle out that the player "might not qualify", "isn't cleared yet", or their "eligibility is in question". Then everyone starts acting like a child whose toy from Christmas breaks or is taken from them in January. Screams of "Not this **** again!" and "Geez, how dumb is this kid?" abound and message boards are filled with, "Dude HS is easy. I took 12 P.E. classes in HS and had a 3.5 GPA", "I thought you only needed an 18 on the ACT to get in", "I heard he going to retake the ACT in June and that's our only hope" and "Stupid Coach, why do we recruit these fringe qualifiers in the first place?"
Basically, a lot of people show that they really don't know what the NCAA requirements are, let alone what a recruit's "current status" is that "needs to be monitored". Are you one of the above statement-makers and want to pick an internet fight? No. Okay, well do you at least want to know what the real NCAA Division I eligibility requirements are and why this crap is so confusing? Yes? Well click on to learn more.
Eligibility to participate in NCAA Division I college athletics is both straightforward and complicated. The goal here is to equip you with a basic understanding of the requirements, process, and why it's not so clear in the end sometimes. For reference, please see this quick reference pdf from the NCAA.
Let's start with GPA. Most of you can probably remember approximately what your High School GPA was. If you mostly made B's, you had "about a 3.0" GPA; B's and C's...a 2.5 GPA. Guess what? That's not your GPA to the NCAA. The NCAA cares about your Core GPA. What is your Core GPA? Your Core GPA is the GPA calculated from a select 16 "Core Courses" the NCAA selects from your transcript.
Noticing the distinct lack of Physical Education, Woodshop, Choir and Home Economics? Those Division-I recruits do too. The NCAA only cares about how you did in the relatively harder courses in high school. Also noticing the somewhat vague last line of "4 years of additional courses?" This is often why NCAA recruits don't know what their Core GPA is at all. Do they count that Freshman Spanish class I bombed or the US History class I got a B in my junior year? Unless you have a guidance counselor that is familiar with the detailed requirements or a University Compliance Officer that has actively reviewed your transcript, you won't know.
Moving on to test scores. The NCAA accepts both the ACT and SAT. There is no preference to one or the other. On the SAT, the NCAA uses sum of only the "Math" and "Verbal" scores (both are on a scale of 0-800). On the ACT, the NCAA takes the sum of four individual section scores, "English", "Math", "Reading" and "Science Reasoning" (each section is on a scale from 1-36). The basic difference in the testing is that on the ACT, there are four possible answer choices and there is no penalty for answering a question incorrectly; where on the SAT, you gain 1 raw point for each correct answer, but lose 1/4 point for each incorrect answer. Each question on the SAT has 5 answer choices, so mathematically, unless you can eliminate at least one potential answer, you are better off probability-wise leaving the answer blank. This can lead to test takers feeling more comfortable with one test or the other, but by and large the preference is a regional thing. The SAT is the more popular test on both the East and West coasts, where the ACT is the preferred test for those states not touching an ocean.
So, how do we determine eligibility? Easy! A sliding scale. Wait, sliding means moving and that's not exactly easy! Well, basically, take your Core GPA (you remember, the number you might not know without help from a professional) and find the highest GPA in the table that doesn't exceed your Core GPA. Then look across and determine what the minimum SAT or ACT summed score you need to be eligible. Already taken the ACT and want to know what your Core GPA must be? Find your score then look to the left to determine the minimum Core GPA.
Did you notice that "prior to August 1, 2015?" Yeah, the requirements are changing beginning August 1, 2015 and the change centers on Core GPA. The basic change is that the minimum Core GPA to participate in Competition is changing across all test scores. The mapping in the image above will be retained as the minimum Core GPA for financial aid and participating in practices. Don't ask me how you get qualified for competition if you are only cleared for practice, because I don't know. I'm sure I'll force myself to learn for some basketball freshman in the 2016 season.
Okay. Now we know what the NCAA requirements are. Now let's talk process and bring up potential complications or "grey areas". Test scores are the easy part and most cut-and-dry. Just before taking the test, you can select the NCAA Eligibility Center as a destination for your test scores to be sent to. The NCAA only accepts score sent directly from the testing agencies. However, as we have seen from Derrick Rose, even this can cause confusion at times regarding a player's eligibility.
For Core GPA, the NCAA reviews your high school transcript and determines what your GPA is for the calculation. There is no standard for formatting of a high school transcript and they vary from county to county in every state. Depending on the "course description" text on your transcript, the NCAA may reject a particular course if they don't believe it meets the detailed criteria they have set for each core course. This is of particular concern with foreign transcripts which require translation and may lack adequate descriptions of what the course content was for a particular class.
The NCAA requires that 10 of the 16 core courses must be completed by your seventh semester of high school (that's halfway through your senior year). So at max, you can only retake 6 of the 10 courses to "improve" your Core GPA late in high school. This also means that if you had no guidance in selecting your classes in high school, you can end up unable to achieve 10 NCAA-bless core classes in those first 7 semesters and have guaranteed a future of "prep school", regardless of what your grades are. Also, there are quite a few recruits who didn't care about grades until they realized they were "college scholarship" material. If this sudden change of heart happens late in their high school careers, it can be too late for them to get eligible, regardless of the sudden effort or improvements in grades. For these recruits "prep school" acts as an addition to your senior year, effectively allowing you to retake more core courses, even some of those "locked in" initial 10 of 16 core courses.
Another complication is transferring high schools. When you transfer from one high school to another, the receiving high school reviews the sending high schools transcript and "credits" your grades toward the appropriate classes at the receiving school. Sometimes there are not one-to-one, apples-to-apples comparisons for grading scales and classes and thus sometimes the new grade or course description texts on transcripts may not accurately reflect what the course content actually was. It's no coincidence that you see a lot of high school kids "transfer" to a "Basketball Prep School" during their high school careers. These particular prep schools invest and know what the NCAA requirements are, what course description key words to use and do quite well to ensure students check the necessary boxes to clear the NCAA Eligibility Center.
Finally, please note the NCAA Eligibility Center doesn't have a great deal of power to question authenticity of a student's transcript. They can and frequently do question the content of the transcript, but if an accredited institution insists Eric's questionable transcript is legitimate, which calculates precisely to a 3.550 Core GPA (even though Eric's GPA was 1.6 outside of the 16 curiously well-written course descriptions that match NCAA Core Course criteria, in which 10 of the 16 came as "transferred" from another high school and the last 6 A's came in a 2 semester online-based summer school after his senior year in which he took Algebra 3 then retook Algebra 2) and his 400 on the SAT was just a fluke, I don't think there is much the NCAA can do.
So in summary, becoming eligible is both simple and complicated, depending on the situation. Don't take too much stock in a recruits eligibility concerns until you know definitively what the situation is. You never know if summer school is to take Core Course #16 because they had a bad guidance counselor or if they are slamming in 6 courses in over and retaking the ACT, because they got a 10 on it last time (42 summed score). In my opinion, hearing a recruit is "retaking the ACT" for better test scores is the bigger red flag over core GPA. With a competent compliance officer a lot can be accomplished in retaking 6 classes. Just remember that 6 fresh A's accompanied by 5 C's and 5 D's is a 2.438 GPA, which can still get eligible with a sum of 70 on the ACT. What's a sum of 70 going to be as a composite ACT score? Oh, about an 18. Coincidental? I think not.