Of all the things the NCAA does that rile up the masses, one which should be the most obvious is one of the least known. The NCAA strikes a controversial bargain with athletes. In exchange for the opportunity to get an education, financial support for that education (maybe), elite training and exposure, the NCAA asks athletes to forego opportunities to earn income and maintain certain academic standards.
Then on top of all of that, the NCAA charges them $70.
That is the cost for a domestic student (including the United States, Canada, and US territories) to register with the NCAA Eligibility Center. For international athletes, the current fee is $120. Until September 1 that is when the NCAA hikes the fees (which were just raised in 2012) to $75 and $130 respectively.
On the bright side, the neediest athletes do not pay this fee. Prospects who receive a fee waiver for either the SAT or ACT also have the Eligibility Center fee waived. That process is not complicated, but is not exactly foolproof either. An official from the high school must confirm that the athlete is eligible for the waiver, which can lead to delays.
But the fee is still hard to swallow for two reasons. The first is that the NCAA ran a $58 million surplus last year. The NCAA says the Eligibility Center is run as a cost center, i.e. the money generated goes into running the Eligibility Center not to other activities and fees rise when running the Eligibility Center gets more expensive. If 180,000 prospects are registering with the Eligibility Center, that would be $12.6 million. Seems like the NCAA can afford the Eligibility Center via other revenue sources.
The other problem is that a large portion of prospects pay the $70 but never get what they paid for. If a prospect registers, pays, answers the questionnaire, and sends in all necessary documents, they will not get reviewed if not on an institutional request list (IRL). The IRL is a list maintained by schools of athletes they are recruiting and want the Eligibility Center to certify. Athletes have to be placed on the IRL at certain points (before an official visit or before an NLI is issued), but many never are.
On top of all that, there is a lot of misinformation about the Eligibility Center, some of it the fault of the NCAA and some not. The NCAA pushes prospects to register very early, before their junior year of high school. For some prospects, who have already had recruiting contact with Division I coaches or been offered a Division I or II scholarship, that may be appropriate. But for the majority, they can safely wait until at least the middle of their senior year, perhaps even later. Coaches will sometimes tell prospects they have to be qualifiers to try out (not correct) and many prospects and their families believe that registering with the Eligibility Center helps athletes get recruited (it does not).
It’s a bad look for the NCAA to charge for something the NCAA itself requires. The NCAA can afford to pay for the Eligibility Center without it generating its own revenue. But it should not simply make registration free. The fact that large number of prospects register with the Eligibility Center despite not being seriously recruited means some other mechanism to control or reduce registrations is needed. Otherwise even more prospects will register, eating up resources like mail processing and customer service lines even though their files will never be reviewed.
The best solution is to stop having prospects register themselves and require that institutions generate accounts. When adding a prospect to the IRL, institutions already have decent tools to search for prospects. The NCAA can also merge accounts if duplicates are created. When prospects register with the Eligibility Center, they already go through a two-step process of requesting an account before they confirm their email address and create a password. That account request stage would simply be handled by institutions.
There would still be prospects who are not certified if they are no longer on an IRL when they finish high school. But it would be much fewer and they would not have paid to register. The Eligibility Center could also be run more efficiently, since there would be far fewer accounts. That would reduce the cost which, as discussed above, the NCAA can easily afford. All while eliminating the perception that the NCAA is making athletes pay anything, no matter how little, to participate in commercial amateur athletics.