Today’s guest columnist is Scott Rosner of Columbia University.
Intercollegiate athletics is in a dangerous time. Many—if not most—of the wounds are of the self-inflicted variety and its leaders have found themselves seemingly hamstrung by the Supreme Court decision in Alston. With the recent NCAA publication of guidelines banning boosters (including collectives) from any contact with prospective college athletes, their families or representatives, and the convening of a task force to address the impact of name, image and likeness laws on transfer students and the portal itself, the powers that be in intercollegiate athletics are scrambling. They’re trying to figure out a legal way—ANY way—in the words of my colleague and Knight Commission Co-Chair Len Elmore “to keep the portal, the collectives, etc…, from infecting the entire college sports universe, rendering it merely another pure professionalism vehicle that thereby obscures the primary mission of college athletics by placing the education of the student-athlete subordinate to the hollow goal of simply pursuing the almighty dollar.”
Lost in all this has been much conversation about degree completion. Though such a discussion may seem quaint, doing so is nonetheless worthwhile. The May 1 closing of the NCAA transfer portal for all fall/winter sports in the 2022-2023 academic year yielded some eye-opening but not unsurprising data. Over 2,000 football players and 1,600 men’s basketball players have entered the portal and are seeking to potentially take advantage of the one-time transfer exception allowing athletes in these sports (as well as men’s ice hockey, baseball, and women’s basketball) to transfer without either losing a year of eligibility or sitting out for one season. Under limited circumstances—including the still-existing graduate transfer rule—athletes may apply for a waiver that would allow a second transfer to occur; otherwise, they would be forced to sit for a year and lose a year of eligibility. The rule put football and basketball on equal footing with all other NCAA sports beginning in the 2021-22 academic year, but it has been the subject of significant attention given the overwhelming popularity of these sports in the intercollegiate landscape. The change in rules undoubtedly was at the root of the spike in students transferring in 2021.
While historically the most common reasons that transfers occur are due to playing time issues, coaching changes or conflicts, and professional aspirations, the COVID-19 pandemic that led to the granting of an extra year of eligibility to all student-athletes in 2020 and the rule changes surrounding name, image and likeness in 2021 have created new motives for the transfer decision. It is easier to transfer now than ever before. NCAA Transfer Portal data show undergraduate FBS football transfers in 2021 increased by 62% from 2020 (to 950).
The story in Division I men’s basketball is much the same. Undergraduate Division I men’s basketball transfers in 2021 increased by 44% from 2020 (to 769). The data across all of these metrics in Division I women’s basketball is not that much different.
This freedom of movement has been widely hailed as a major victory for student-athletes from athletic, financial and ethical perspectives. But as a college professor, I would be remiss if I did not raise an important potential cost of this new era of free agency in college sports. What is the impact of the increase in transfers on graduation rates going to be?
Graduation success rates (or GSRs) have increased to record highs in recent year, including in the sports of football and men’s basketball. The NCAA reports that 81% of FBS football players and 84% of Division I men’s basketball players received degrees within six years of their initial enrollment from 2018-2021, with black athletes—who comprise the majority of athletes in both sports—graduating at a lower rate than white athletes in both sports (77% vs. 90% in football and 81% vs. 93% in men’s basketball). And the graduation rates for students transferring between four-year institutions is lower than that of students who remain at the same institution.
This makes sense. Few (if any) undergraduate athletes are entering the transfer portal for academic reasons. In addition to the decreased focus on academics in favor of athletics, the loss of credits during the transfer process, a poor fit between the student’s academic ability and interests and the institutional offerings, the level and quality of academic advising and support, as well as differences and difficulty in assimilating to a new campus culture are all challenges faced by those who transfer. The addition of the potential pursuit of NIL dollars as a factor motivating the decision to transfer adds yet another layer of complexity.
While a number of individuals will monetize the transfer exception by improving their draft status and/or NIL deals, there are likely many more who will lose money on the deal by transferring and not graduating. Fewer than 2% of NCAA men’s basketball and football players make it to the NBA or NFL. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, the median lifetime earnings difference between those with a Bachelor’s degree ($2.268 million) and those who attended college but did not earn a degree ($1.547 million) is over $720,000.
My sense is that this data is not part of the mindset of college athletes contemplating an entrance into the transfer portal or the recruiting pitch for those who do so. Perhaps it should be.
Rosner is the program director of the Master of Science in Sports Management program and a professor of professional practice in the School of Professional Studies at Columbia University. He may be reached at email@example.com.