Tackling Academic Eligibility Requirements for Student-Athletes during the First Year

Stephanie Holmes
University of South Carolina

Volume: 11
Article first published online: June 24, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161510

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, student-athlete, NCAA, major, eligibility

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of articles written by students enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate seminar on academic advising at the University of South Carolina during the spring 2009 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.

Student-athletes not only face the same challenges that all college students encounter, they also must meet the academic eligibility standards of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). This poses an interesting challenge for advisers who are trying to ensure that these students remain eligible to play their sports while simultaneously pursuing academic majors that they enjoy. The minimum eligibility standards have become so restrictive in recent years that it has become difficult for student-athletes to change their majors and still meet the NCAA's requirements. Likewise, the course choices for student-athletes are essentially limited to courses that will count toward their degrees. This puts pressure on advisers to help students select the most appropriate major at the beginning of the athlete's first year. Selecting the best major from the start would preclude many of the obstacles that student-athletes must face if they later decide to change majors. The purpose of this article is to explain the restrictive nature of NCAA eligibility requirements and then introduce Appreciative Advising as a tool for academic advisers, especially those who work specifically with student-athletes during their first year.

Overview of Eligibility Requirements

In order to better understand why it is important to address the issue of academic eligibility during the student-athlete's first year, it is essential to consider NCAA eligibility in terms of degree-completion requirements. According to the NCAA (Kerin, 2005) and the University of South Carolina (USC Athletics Department, 2008), each semester a student-athlete must pass six hours of courses that can be applied toward his/her degree. To remain eligible, the student-athlete every year must also pass eighteen hours of courses that can be applied toward his/her degree (this combines the fall and spring semesters).

According to the NCAA (Kerin, 2005), student-athletes must declare their degree programs by their third year of college enrollment. Once a student-athlete has selected his/her degree program, all credits or classes taken must count toward that degree. If student-athletes decide to change their degree programs, credits earned prior to the degree change count toward the previous degree program, while credits earned after the change count toward the new degree program. That said, the old hours do not count toward the new degree program, which means the student-athlete may no longer be eligible to play his or her sport.

There are also percentage requirements that the student-athletes must meet. According to the NCAA (Kerin, 2005), at the start of their third year, student-athletes must have 40 percent of their degree requirements completed and have earned at least a 1.9 GPA (degree requirements and hours vary depending on degree program). The standards increase to 60 percent and a minimum 2.0 GPA at the start of their fourth year; and 80 percent with at least a 2.0 GPA at the start of their fifth year. Thus it becomes increasingly difficult for student-athletes to change majors and still meet the degree-completion percentage requirements. At some point, student-athletes may face the dilemma of either pursuing the sport they love or the academic path that they enjoy.

Appreciative Advising as a Tool

“Appreciative Advising is a social-constructivist advising philosophy that provides a framework for optimizing adviser interactions with students in both individual and group settings” (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008, p. 11). Using Appreciative Advising during the student-athlete's first year is integral to his/her satisfaction and success, as the model allows advisers to accurately advise students on a major or academic path and apply the six phases of Appreciative Advising: Disarm, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Don't Settle (Bloom et al.). Athletics advisers should plan on initially spending at least thirty minutes with each student-athlete to discuss majors and go through the appropriate stages of Appreciate Advising. Time invested in selecting majors that are a good fit for student-athletes at the beginning of their academic careers can save time down the line. Beginning these discussions at orientation and continuing the conversation during the first few advising sessions in the fall make the most sense.


Before meeting with a student-athlete, the adviser should research the sport the student is playing, as well as the student-athlete's accomplishments both on and off the field prior to enrolling at the institution. The adviser may have access to this information from paperwork, or perhaps he/she met the student-athlete during a recruiting visit. The adviser should also greet the student warmly when the athlete enters the office and eliminate any distractions that may take the focus off the student-athlete (Bloom et al., 2008). Finally, the adviser should arrange the office so that the student-athlete feels welcome and comfortable.


In order to assist the student-athlete in selecting a degree program, the adviser needs to know the student's biggest hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Asking positive, open-ended questions at this point in the advising process is key. “By utilizing positive, open-ended questions they [advisers] can extract narratives through which they can help students identify their strengths, passions, and skills” (Bloom et al., 2008, p. 43). By asking these types of questions, advisers encourage students to tell their stories. The following are examples of such questions: “Who had the biggest impact on your decision to come to this institution and how did they impact you?” or “Describe a peak experience when you felt really good about yourself or what you accomplished” (Bloom et al.). Again, this stage of the process is crucial in order to learn the student's story and guide her or him toward the right academic path.


At this point there should be a level of trust established between the adviser and the student-athlete. “In the Dream phase of the model, Appreciative Advisers strive to understand the images in the students' minds. Creating a positive vision of the future is the first step in accomplishing dreams” (Bloom et al., 2008, p. 56). This is when advisers encourage student-athletes to think outside their comfort zones and discuss their biggest, wildest dreams for their future. This could be a challenge for many student-athletes, especially if their long-term dreams do not include playing a sport. However, the challenge may also consist of helping student-athletes distinguish between their academic goals and their athletic dreams. If the adviser has built a positive rapport with the student-athlete, then it would be appropriate to ask a question regarding what the athlete would do if playing his or her sport were no longer an option. A sample question would be “Outside of playing professional sports, what are your dreams for your future?”


During the Design phase, the adviser and the student-athlete will work together to develop a plan for the rest of the student-athlete's academic career. An example of this would be to fill out a degree-completion or a semester planning form. Also, it is important to keep in mind that the adviser is not solely responsible for creating and implementing this plan; the student-athlete takes responsibility as well. Once student-athletes identify the degrees they want to pursue, they need to begin researching these fields of interest. They should be encouraged to meet with the appropriate academic adviser for particular majors and to talk with other student-athletes who are also pursuing those degrees. Other resources include putting student-athletes in touch with alumni in the field, encouraging them to get a job or internship during their sports' off season, and meeting with professors who teach within their major. It is also important to put student-athletes in touch with the career center on campus so they can speak with a career counselor and utilize available resources. This conversation should consist of brainstorming, creating pros and cons lists, and researching options (Bloom et al., 2008).


It is now time for the student-athlete to execute the plan that was discussed during the Design phase (Bloom et al., 2008). The adviser takes the time to inform the student about the steps needed to successfully complete the plan. The adviser lets the athlete know there will be roadblocks and encourages the student to return to the adviser's office for help when they occur. As student-athletes leave the advising session, they should take a copy of the plan that was co-created, so they know what their responsibilities are and can go over the next steps that need to be taken. A sample question could be to ask them what they will do if their goals change (Bloom et al.).

Don't Settle

During this process, the adviser has been the student's support system and, although that role remains, when the student-athlete returns for a follow-up visit, an opportunity emerges to celebrate the athlete's achievements and to challenge him or her. For example, if the student decides that business is the desired major but a difficult task causes him or her to stumble, it may be tempting to pursue something less rigorous. In this case, the adviser must challenge the student-athlete to push toward the goal and should also provide resources, such as tutoring help, to ensure the student's success. Another challenge may arise if the student-athlete chooses a degree path just because it is deemed easy. In this situation, the adviser should know the student well enough to assist him or her to raise the bar to exactly the right point. A key component of Don't Settle is to allow students' small successes to be the momentum for further successes (Bloom et al., 2008). By accomplishing a series of smaller goals, the student-athlete can ultimately earn a college diploma.


This article discussed the importance of student-athletes choosing, within the first year, academic paths that interest them and that they will stick with throughout their academic careers. An overview of NCAA eligibility requirements was provided and the concept of Appreciative Advising was introduced as a tool to assist student-athletes in choosing an academic major. If athletic academic advisers can help student-athletes select the right majors during the first year of college, it will help to ensure that these students meet NCAA eligibility requirements while they pursue majors they enjoy.


Bloom, J. L., Hutson, B. L., & He, Y. (2008). The appreciative advising revolution. Champaign, IL: Stipes.

Kerin, B. (2005). The what, when, and how of Division I continued eligibility: An introductory explanation. Session presented at the 2005 Regional Rules Seminar, San Francisco, CA.

University of South Carolina (USC) Athletics Department. (2008). University of South Carolina Student-Athlete Handbook and Planner. School Databooks: Publisher.

About the Author

Stephanie Holmes is a graduate student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of South Carolina. She is also a graduate assistant in the university's Department for Sexual Health and Violence Prevention. She can be reached at holmessm@mailbox.sc.edu.