One of the most stressful times for a college athlete is waiting for their initial eligibility status to clear. The NCAA Eligibility Center certifies athletes as qualifiers or non-qualifiers, and so they hold many of the cards for athletes waiting to be cleared. Delays; going back and forth between the Eligibility Center, high school, prospect and college; waivers and appeals are common enough to cause headaches for more than a few prospects, even if they make up just a tiny percentage of those that enrolling in college each year.
According to the NCAA, a prospect’s status as a non-qualifier should not prevent them from enrolling in school. As a non-qualifier, a student-athlete is prohibited from receiving an athletic scholarship, practicing with the team, and playing in games. They are not prohibited from being admitted to the school, attending classes, or even receiving some athletic department benefits like tutoring, training room services, and free tickets to home athletic events. Prop–48 kids, as they used to be called, were basically allowed to enroll at whatever school they wanted, provided they could pay their own way and focused on just school for a year.
It’s the Conference Rules, not the NCAA Rules
The reason non-qualifiers are often not allowed to enroll in schools is because of conference non-qualifier rules. The rules vary from conference to conference and some conferences do not have a non-qualifier rule at all. But the most common version reads something like this:
Any non-qualifier whose initial full-time collegiate enrollment occurs at a conference institution shall be permanently ineligible for practice, competition, and athletically-related financial aid at all conference institutions.
Or put more clearly, if a prospect who was declared a non-qualifier attends classes or reports to practice as a freshman, he or she can never play at that school or any other school in the same conference. Some conferences allow schools to take a limited number of non-qualifiers per year; a total of four with two men and two women and only one in each sport is an example. Other conferences have a limit on how many prospects who receive partial waivers may be added each year (a partial waiver allows a prospect to receive aid and practice, but not compete as a freshman). Most conferences with a non-qualifier rule exempt any prospect who receives a full initial eligibility waiver.
The result is that prospects who are declared non-qualifiers are not allowed to enroll and start classes at schools in conferences with such strict non-qualifier policies. Many prospects who simply have not been cleared yet are treated the same way. By doing so, they would not only forfeit their eligibility at that school, but also all other conference schools. It is such a harsh penalty that schools use extreme caution even with some athletes who will be qualifiers.
That was never supposed to be the intent of the NCAA’s initial eligibility rules. When commentators point to the success of Prop–48 kids as proof that the NCAA does not need initial eligibility standards, they ignore the possibility that having to sit out the first year might have been one of the keys to their success. A full academic year of focusing on school rather than athletics could have been what was needed to prepare the student for the rigors of being a student-athlete. Perhaps athletic aid should be permitted to non-qualifiers, but the NCAA never attached as severe a penalty to being a non-qualifier as conferences did.
But with the end of partial qualifiers in Division I and the proliferation of non-qualifier rules across many conferences including most major conferences, being deemed a Division I non-qualifier often closes the doors to the college, not just the stadium. Partial waivers have alleviated some of this, but any waiver process involves enough risk that a student waiting for a waiver will not be allowed to attend classes, and risks falling behind, something that students on the edge of the NCAA’s standards can often not afford. The new standards in 2016 will alleviate some of this by reintroducing partial qualifiers as academic red-shirts, but that assumes that conferences do not pass similar rules for academic red-shirts.
Check the Conference Non-qualifier Rules
Prospects should check into whether the schools they are interested in have conference non-qualifier rules. That should not take any of the focus away from meeting the NCAA’s initial eligibility standards, but it will let a prospect know up front what the options are if he or she happens to fall short. Transfers need to know this as well since many conference include stricter rules for non-qualifiers who would like to transfer in, such as requiring them to wait for two years after starting college or transferring in more credit that is required by the NCAA to get a transfer exception. Aside from just knowing their status, prospects need to be aware of what that status means for their education and athletic career.