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Charting Your Academic Course: A Study Into Your Studies

By Matt Musico

The collegiate athletic recruitment process can be overwhelming in many ways -- especially for students and families going through it the first time. There are lots of places out on the internet sharing accurate information, but it’s kind of like taking a drink from a fire hose. 

It’s just too much all at once, and it can even make the most informed person’s head spin from time to time. And that’s just with regard to the part exclusively about the athletic portion of the experience. So, what about the academic part? After all, the old adage is “they’re called student-athletes for a reason”. 

It’s true that academics are going to be an important piece of the puzzle once an athletic recruit officially becomes an enrolled student at any particular college or university, but you have to get there first. Similar to how it’s important to keep doing what needs to be done athletically throughout high school, the same can be said about what happens in the classroom. This includes keeping your grades up and doing the best you can on any standardized tests. The NCAA also has a number of guidelines focused on the types of classes a student-athlete must take for the purpose of initial eligibility and to be considered ready for college, both as a student and as an athlete. 

Initial Eligibility

The idea of initial eligibility serves two purposes. The first is mentioned above, which is ensuring a student-athlete is ready for college because they’ve taken academics seriously throughout high school. The second is to ensure that the sanctity of college athletics is preserved by confirming all athletes going through the recruitment process still have their amateur status intact. 

While it’s not required for Division III athletes, those planning on participating in Division I or II athletics must be certified through the NCAA Eligibility Center in order to practice, compete, and receive any athletic aid a coach plans on awarding them. The NCAA’s College-Bound Student-Athlete Guide lays out a general high school timeline for students to ensure they remain on track to be eligible for athletic participation.

Here’s a small sampling of that roadmap: 

9th Grade: The experience may just be beginning, but it’s a good time to start planning ahead and penciling in what the rest of high school could look like while also having some knowledge on which courses will be approved by the NCAA. It’s also not a bad idea to create a free profile on the Eligibility Center. 

10th Grade: Continue working with your guidance counselor to make sure you’re on track to stay qualified for NCAA participation--from an academic perspective. Change that free account at the Eligibility Center to one that will certify your status. At the end of the school year, ask your school counselor to upload an official transcript.

11th Grade: Double check your sports participation information on your Eligibility Center profile to make sure it’s correct. This is also the most common time to start taking SAT/ACT tests. Once you have an official score back, have it sent electronically to the Eligibility Center, along with having your school counselor upload an updated official transcript with current year grades included at the end of the year. 

12th Grade: Outside of the more obvious stuff, like taking the SATs or ACTs again if necessary and making sure you’re completing the core courses needed for NCAA participation, your final amateurism certification can be requested as soon as April 1st for those attending college in the fall. Finally, ask your counselor to upload your final transcript with proof of graduation. 

What’s a Core Course?

 Staying on track with NCAA-approved core courses has already been mentioned a number of times, but what exactly is a core course?

To to be deemed an approved core course by the NCAA, it must be a four-year college prep course in one of the following areas: English, math (Algebra 1 or higher), natural/physical science, social science, foreign language, or comparative religion or philosophy. 

It’s also important to know what’s not a core course. This includes any class outside the core academic subjects listed above (such as art, music, physical education, etc.), as well as courses that prepare students for the real world in other ways (like tech, personal finance, etc.) and credit-by-exam courses. 

To see a list of NCAA-approved core courses at your high school, you can follow this link and input the necessary codes to get that particular information. What gets a little tricky is that the academic standards for each level of play varies slightly, so it’s a good idea to know exactly what needs to be done in order to plan ahead and stay in good academic standing. 

Division I 

There are three requirements student-athletes must meet in order to be considered an academic qualifier for Division I schools: having taken enough NCAA-approved core courses, as well as meeting the minimum core-course GPA and test score benchmarks. 

Prospective student-athletes must complete a total of 16 core courses in either eight academic semesters or four consecutive years, beginning with ninth grade. This includes four years of English, three years of math (Algebra 1 or higher), and two years of natural/physical science, with one additional course from any of these three areas. It’s also required to have two years of a social science, and four years of additional courses, which includes any subjects already mentioned, along with a foreign language, or comparative religion/philosophy. 

And before the beginning of your senior year, it’s required that 10 of the 16 core academic courses are completed, with at least seven of them being English, math, or natural/physical science. 

With regard to GPA and SAT/ACT requirements, a student-athlete needs a minimum of a 2.3 GPA to be an academic qualifier (2.0-2.299 GPA qualifies as an academic redshirt). The Division I academic sliding scale balances a student’s test scores and GPA. More information on the sliding scale and actually seeing how you fall on it can be found here

Division II

In order for Division II athletes to be eligible for practice, competition, and to receive any athletic aid they’ve been awarded, the NCAA holds them to similar standards for general academic requirements. They’ll need to fulfill a certain number of core academic courses, as well as meeting certain GPA and test score standards (which has been slightly different due to the COVID-19 pandemic). 

Division II athletes must still complete 16 core academic courses, but it includes three years of English, two years of math (Algebra 1 or higher), two years of natural/physical science, three additional years of either English, math, or science, two years of a social science, and four years of additional courses in an approved category. In addition to submitting proof of graduation to the NCAA Eligibility Center, there’s a different sliding scale for GPA and test scores specific for Division II athletics. 

You can view how your core academic GPA and test scores compare to one another by viewing the sliding scale here.  

Division III

The differences for Division III athletics are the greatest of all. Since this level of play doesn’t include any athletic scholarship being awarded to recruits, those interested in playing for these kinds of colleges don’t need to be certified by the NCAA Eligibility Center. In order to be eligible to practice and compete as an athlete on any D-III campus, the main requirement is for the student to be accepted via the general admissions process and meeting the standards that individual institutions lay out prior to each recruitment cycle. 

Details with regard to your athletic journey throughout high school is vital to your recruitment experience with college coaches, but the academic details can make a big difference in making all your dreams and goals eventually possible.

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