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BYU Football Recruiting: a 3.0 GPA rule is dumb

Really, any football coach using a hard and fast GPA requirement is missing the point.

The NCAA has a minimum benchmark for academics that every player must meet in order to be eligible. BYU, however, has said that they hold players to a higher academic standard. This Deseret News story, from July 5th, 2011, sets the standard at the following:

The baseline to enroll at BYU and to be part of its football program is a 3.3 GPA, coupled with a 19 on the ACT. There is a bit of a sliding scale, as someone could qualify with a 3.0 GPA and a 24 on the ACT, according to coaches, but they try to stick as closely to the stated "baseline" as possible.

A few others have reported as the standard being a little more forgiving. The BYU blog Lawless Republic had previously written that the minimum GPA for a BYU football recruit is 3.0. Twitter user Nate Meikle, who was apparently live tweeting a Bronco Mendenhall appearance at a clinic, recently wrote this:

So maybe the requirement is a 3.0 GPA. Maybe it's a 3.3. Either way, holding to a hard and fast GPA rule is dumb, may cause BYU to miss out on quality athletes, and most importantly, may actually create an incentive to dumb down academics and prevent student achievement.

First, let's try to figure out why BYU would have such a rule (or announce it in public). The school prides itself in not being a football factory type institution, wants to win the right way. They've avoided NCAA sanctions, embarrassing academic scandals, and have mostly avoided especially troublesome off the field issues. Holding athletes to a higher bar academically, along with spiritually, would easily fall into the overall mission of the university.

Plus, admitting students who may not be academically prepared could hurt the actual football team as well. Students who cannot stay eligible, have poor university GPAs, or take extra long to graduate will damage the school's APR, or Academic Progress Rating. A low rating eventually leads to sanctions, including loss of scholarships, a sanction that would cripple BYU in particular, given the difficulty in juggling scholarships and roster numbers with mission calls. In principle, an additional academic benchmark would make sense.

But this benchmark doesn't really fulfill either of those qualifications.

It's important for folks to understand that a GPA number, taken in a vacuum, means almost nothing. The scale itself is not standardized (a district may use a 4.0 scale, a 4.3 scale, 5.0 scale, or something else entirely), the courseload is not standardized, the curriculum isn't standardized, potentially, not even within a single building, let alone over a school district, city, or state. All it does it tell us that a student recorded an average, (roughly) of between 83-86% over their entire courseload.

Schools in this country vary HUGELY in rigor, curriculum, resources, anything you can think of. The high school that I attended in Ohio required me to do more rigorous research and coursework as a senior than I did in my first three years at a very good university. The school district where I taught in inner city Louisiana graduated students who read at the 8th grade level. A teacher might assign a grade purely from test performance. Others might give a mixture of tests, homework, "class participation", group projects, or other assessments. As a number all by itself, it doesn't tell somebody very much about their level of academic preparation. That's why a university admissions officer uses several other metrics in making a decision about a candidate.

This is also to say nothing of the rigor of a courseload. Say you were a high school junior who wanted to play football at BYU. Let's say you have a 2.8 GPA, and are trying to decide what classes you want to take for your senior year. If you know that you won't be considered for a football scholarship without a 3.0 GPA, would you take chemistry, college prep courses, or advanced math...or would you try to take as many band, gym or art classes as possible, to pad your GPA? A student who has a 2.7 or 2.8 GPA but took nothing but AP classes, or similarly rigorous coursework, is probably better prepared for an academically competitive university than a kid who took mostly easy classes but had a 3.1 GPA.

You know what it standardized though? The ACT. The ACT is the same test in Utah as it is in California, as it is in Vermont. It isn't a perfect measurement (speaking as a former educator, the test is probably somewhat biased against poor students, but that's probably not for this blog), but it does paint a more specific picture of what a student knows, in a vacuum, than a GPA. The reading section on the ACT, for example, covers mostly what would be considered a 10th grade reading level. If a student tests poorly on that subject, the odds are strong that they are going to struggle with reading at the college level.

So that's why the ACT section of the BYU requirement is puzzling. A 19 on the ACT is not a good score. A 19 composite score is actually below the national average, which includes thousands of kids who take the test due to a state requirement, and not because they actually plan to go to college. Nobody with that score has a chance of getting into BYU as a regular student (the BYU average, depending on who you ask, is either a 28 or a 29, both very strong scores). A Student with a 3.0 GPA and a 19 ACT might not even get into Utah State. A disparity that large between a GPA and an ACT score would make me think that a student wasn't taking a very rigorous courseload, or was skating by on homework, participation, or others.

The NCAA uses a sliding scale for GPAs and ACT (or SAT) scores to determine eligibility. If a student has a composite 19 on their ACT, right now, the NCAA would mandate at least a 2.3 GPA, so BYU's benchmark is significantly higher. Practically speaking though, it would be very hard for a student athlete to become eligible with an ACT score much lower than 19. 17 seems to be about the floor.

It's also worth pointing out that again, the APR score for BYU football is not very good. From 2009-2012, BYU hasn't recorded an APR above 932, and with the NCAA raising the APR bar, a score in a similar neighborhood in the future could actually open BYU up to sanctions. While some have pointed out that missions may cause a ding in BYU's APR (since it takes longer for students to graduate), BYU has found success in other sports. The men's basketball team APR, for example, has been one of the best in all of college basketball. Cross Country and Golf, among others, are also very high. If the point of setting this GPA bar is to help foster academic achievement among football players, it isn't doing a very good job.

Finally, there is something to be said about the structured environment of a university's ability to help improve student achievement. There are probably not many environments MORE structured than that of an athlete at BYU. A high character kid who might be low on his GPA or ACT, could potentially blossom under rigorous tutelage, peer support and time. Part of the recruiting process should be to better understand the character of a kid, which can tell a more complete process than a number on a transcript. It would be a shame for program to miss on some of those teaching moments for something as arbitrary as a number.

So if this isn't a good system, what would be? I have some suggestions.

1) Go all out, substantially raise both bars. if you want to win with a team of scholars, like Stanford or Northwestern, then make sure you have a team of actual scholars. Only recruit athletes that could get into BYU on their own academic merits, or at least, come close to the GPA/ACT averages of the student body at large. There *are* kids out there who can run 4.5 40 yard dahses AND nail the ACT. If you're 1000% serious about this goal, then don't try to halfass your GPA/ACT benchmark. Of course, for a program that already struggles to recruit elite talent, this benchmark might completely limit them to Service Academy status, but hey, that's up to the school.

2) Tie your recruiting benchmarks to the NCAA sliding scale. I'm not saying BYU's standards should be the minimum allowed, but perhaps they could agree on a % that a student must exceed that number (i.e all recruits must have a profile say, 40% better than the NCAA min). That gives the school the flexibility to say, sign a kid with a B- average but a strong ACT score, which is exactly what any other university admissions department would do. It would also potentially weed out a kid who had an artificially high GPA but a bad test score, or the incentive to take easy HS classes.

3) Forget having a minimum, make choices on a case by case basis. This robs the school of potential PR, but it also might make the most sense. It's unreasonable to expect a coaching staff to become an expert on HS curriculum and standards across the entire country. Giving coaches the flexibility to adapt based on the student athlete, their family situation, their confidence that the kid could be successful academically at BYU, etc. Many other coaches at schools that are just as selective, if not moreso, than BYU, use this system.

Picking an arbitrary GPA number and pairing it with a low ACT score doesn't really fulfill their goal of producing scholars and athletes. Instead, it means BYU might miss out on quality athletes and quality young men, or it might give kids a reason to shortchange their high school experience. Maybe BYU already looks at transcripts and kids holistically, instead of hewing hard to a 3.0 cutoff line. If not, nobody wins.