EL DORADO, Kan. -- Butler Community College coach Troy Morrell has won three national championships, including back-to-back titles in 2007 and 2008. But he's most proud of a different stat: he has sent more than 130 student-athletes to FBS and FCS schools over the past 14 years, including 45 to the FBS level since 2010.
But those numbers could drop dramatically in the future, thanks to new qualifying standards put in place last spring by the NCAA. Included in the NCAA's academic reform package passed last spring were standards that as of the end of the 2013 academic year, junior college transfers must now have a 2.5 grade point average in their transferable credits in order to be eligible for a four-year school. That's not only up from a 2.0, but also higher than is required for initial eligibility for freshmen (2.3 under the new NCAA rules) and significantly higher than virtually every university requires for continuing eligibility.
Also included were strengthened requirements in course load. Previously 2-4 transfers -- those who never attended a four-year school -- needed to just complete six hours of English and three hours of math among the 48 hours required to earn their associate's degree. Now student athletes must also complete three hours of natural or physical science and no more than two physical activity credit hours can be applied.
"I keep telling my guys it's not OK to make a C anymore," Morrell said. "The rules the NCAA implemented have really altered the course of things for everybody involved. It's a new ball game, and I don't think it's a good thing." Highland Community College coach Ryan Held guided his team to a turnaround 6-4 season that included an upset of Butler C.C. He said he will have some "really good players in this year's class that won't be eligible under the new rules."
Highland's not alone. When examining the GPAs of football programs in the Jayhawk Conference over the past five years, four of the eight schools had averages that fell below the 2.5 threshold but all were above the previous 2.0 standard. Even Butler C.C., who leads the Jayhawk Conference with a 2.88 five-year average GPA and has a full-time academic advisor, would have had prospects fall victim in the 2013 class had the new standards been in place. Morrell said two of the 12 players that signed with Division I schools this past February would not have qualified.
The National Junior College Athletic Association also estimates more than 2,500 student-athletes in two-year colleges signed with FBS and FCS schools in 2012, including nearly a thousand in football and men's basketball alone. However, the NJCAA doesn't have the resources to pinpoint exactly how many would have been touched by the new standards.
"What's always a concern to me is that we ask more of that young man or that young lady in terms of their grade point average, or their test scores, than we do any other student that attends any university in the country that doesn't participate in athletics," Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder said. "To me, I don't know why you would make a distinction and why you would ostracize some student-athletes. Now, if they don't meet university standards, I can understand that. If they don't, they don't, and you should go by that. But for the NCAA to mandate something that exceeds virtually all, with the exception of the Ivy League schools, there's an unfairness there, I believe."
Mary Ellen Leicht has faced a number of challenges in her 24 years with the NJCAA, but since taking over as the executive director in 2009, nothing has tested her more than the new standards the NCAA has put in place. Leicht said she was disappointed a number of the suggestions the NJCAA, the California Community College Athletic Association and the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges made through involvement with the NCAA's Two-Year College Relations Committee weren't implemented.
"We went probably a good 12 to 18 months looking at what the different scenarios are," Leicht said. "The NCAA worked very closely with our three associations. We thought we had come up with a scenario that was acceptable to the two-year college ranks. It had to do with a graduated implementation of some more stringent requirements based upon the NCAA research. To the very end, we anticipated a 2.3 change in the GPA. When they came out of one of the committees, much to our surprise it was a 2.5."
Leicht said the two-year community also pushed hard for consistent transfer requirements across the board for prep-school, four-year college and two-year transfers. Another proposal that had a lot of support from the two-year community was the idea of a year of academic readiness that would allow an at-risk student to take an academic redshirt season, but it also didn't get approved. "I would like to think the NCAA understands our culture, but sometimes I question that," Leicht said. "It's one of those situations that is a little frustrating for all of us because we know we have student-athletes who have the potential to succeed at the four-year level. If you look at 2.0 as an average student, they're asking a two-year college transfer to be above average. Again, if it were applied across the board evenly, we can live with that."
Diane Dickman, the NCAA's managing director of academic and membership affairs, has been charged by the NCAA's body to push Division I athletics toward the goal of having every student-athlete graduate within five years. When looking at graduation rates across the board, one of the biggest areas of concern was two-year college transfers. According to data collected from Division I schools, two-year transfers have underperformed relative to non-transfers or even four-four transfers. The newest data says around 11 percent of two-year transfers don't graduate within six years of transferring to a Division I school. Plus the Academic Progress Rate for non-transfers is around 973 and for two-year transfers it is 934.
The NCAA also found that the GPA at the two-year school is the strongest predictor of success at the four-year institution. Through its research, the NCAA determined a 2.5 GPA, not a 2.3, put two-four transfers on the same academic footing as freshmen who were admitted through the initial eligibility system. The data also revealed two-year transfers with more core academic credits -- the English, math and science classes -- perform better in four-year settings. "It's been a very thoughtful, deliberative, research-based process to arrive at these standards," Dickman said. "We do understand that any standard impacts students. We are very, very well aware of that. But I will tell you historically, we've seen this with initial eligibility over many decades, as we have set higher standards, student-athletes have risen to meet those standards.
"Will all student-athletes? No. There will be some that will not, but many, many will. They will be better prepared to succeed at our member institutions."
Walter Harrison, the president of the University of Hartford and the chairman of the NCAA's Committee on Academic Performance, strongly agrees with the NCAA's decision to implement the higher standards.
As an educator, Harrison believes the graduation rates for football and basketball that sit below 50 percent are too low and every school should be focused on graduating all of its student-athletes. But he understands the principles of access to higher education and the ability to succeed once you get there often clash when dealing with two-year transfers.
"I want college to be accessible to everybody no matter what their background is," Harrison said. "It's the job of all of us to prepare these students better to be able to succeed in the four-year college. People can change. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be an educator. So the standard is really meant to try and encourage them to do that and encourage two-year educators to prepare them better. Fundamentally in our view students should be students first, athletes second. Our goal should be to help them graduate.
"I realize that a lot of students and coaches are driven primarily by athletic success, but I don't see any fundamental reason, nor do many other presidents, that you can't do that and also succeed in college."
Those in the two-year community are worried the new standards were too much of a knee-jerk reaction and could have a lasting effect.
"It's a travesty we've come to this point," Hutchinson Community College and Jayhawk Conference president Dr. Ed Berger said. "Athletics has long been a way for a student to go to college and break out of a cycle of poverty they've faced their whole life. They've used athletics as a tool for making that happen. When you put those kinds of restrictions on, they're going to take a hard look at whether or not they go to college at all.
"If we're about changing lives, broadening horizons, expanding the potential of young people, this doesn't do anything to enhance that. It makes it almost seem impossible to some of these young people."
Morrell admits there's nothing he can do to change the rules and will do everything he can to help his players be prepared for the next level. He has two players already committed to major programs -- defensive tackle Owen Williams to Tennessee and offensive tackle Luke Hayes to Kansas State -- and five others have major offers.
If things remain the same, all of Morrell's players will be on track to make it academically. "Having a kid move on to the next is the most rewarding part of coaching, because it changes these kid's lives forever," said Morrell, who guided Butler C.C. to its ninth Jayhawk Conference championship this season and an appearance in Sunday's Graphic Edge Bowl against Iowa Western Community College.
"Kids come to a junior college for a number of reasons in the first place. Some are not academically prepared by their high schools and need an opportunity to build their academic resume. Others are under-recruited and look to junior colleges as their opportunity to prove themselves. Then others end up here because they didn't fit in with the school they originally signed with out of high school. The one thing they all have in common is that they're coming here to better themselves and get that next opportunity, and I'm hopeful the new standards will continue to give them those chances."