College-bound student-athletes: Lisa Lavelle on COVID-19's impact, sports eligibility changes, and the 'test optional' trend

Lisa Lavelle  is the President of The Sport Source, which has spent three decades in college counseling for student-athletes. We checked in with Lavelle for her views on the short- and long-term impact of the COVID-19 disruption on colleges and college sports in the USA.

SOCCER AMERICA: What trends have you noticed regarding student-athlete soccer players who when COVID hit were high school seniors planning for their freshman year in college?

LISA LAVELLE: Reactions to COVID-19 have caused a great many changes to daily life, particularly high school students faced with challenges that have never happened before on this scale. Many students who enjoyed participating in sports and a variety of other activities saw their lives changed dramatically.

As you can imagine, many high school students who were thrilled to get accepted to the colleges and universities of their choice had to change their plans and either choose a less costly option for higher education, stay close to home by electing to attend a two-year school, or skip this year altogether due to financial stress on their families brought on by the COVID-19 crisis.

The economic damage to families who have been laid off or forced to deplete their savings during the pandemic is altering future higher education plans for many. With businesses forced to close or furlough staff, many laid-off parents have less money to help pay for college; and more families/students are expecting to take on more student loan debt than they had planned.

Sadly, the latest student loan debt statistics for 2020 show how serious the student loan debt crisis has become for borrowers across all demographics and age groups. There are 45 million borrowers who collectively owe more than $1.6 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S. Student loan debt is now the second highest consumer debt category -- behind only mortgage debt -- and higher than both credit cards and auto loans.

SA: When we spoke in March, you mentioned that COVID may prevent international students from returning to their college programs and rising international freshmen from starting their college careers. Can you update us what you've been able to learn about the general status of international students and how it affects American college soccer players?

LISA LAVELLE: The global pandemic continues to cause widespread uncertainty, no doubt. Routine visa processing in many cases have been suspended at U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide and, International travel restrictions are in place in many countries. Commercial flight options are limited at best and, college administrators say they have little choice but to plan for sizable declines in international students and the tuition revenue they bring.

Many international students who returned home were not able to return to the U.S and, for those who had been accepted/recruited were advised the U.S. government would be barring foreign nationals from entering from a number of nations, including China, Iran, Brazil, the UK, Ireland, and the European Union’s Schengen area.

When it comes to collegiate soccer, it’s been interesting to learn kids who once considered certain universities' offers as “sub-par” or “not good enough” had to rethink the opportunity especially with the NCAA extending an additional year of eligibility to players already on the roster.

Again, what might not be considered a good opportunity for one person, another might see it as the perfect opportunity, and that decision-making process has presented new challenges to college coaches and student-athletes.

Against that backdrop, you have student-athletes being advised to consider enrolling in a local two-year college or find other options given the NCAA allowing an additional year of eligibility to current players and money that was promised is no longer available. This is across the board in all sports, not just soccer.

SA: Can you give us a primer on the NCAA extending eligibility for student-athletes because of COVID and how it affects soccer players?

LISA LAVELLE: The NCAA Division I Council approved a proposal to grant all fall athletes an extra year of eligibility, no matter if they play a 2020–21 season or not. They also approved a blanket waiver granting fall sport athletes an additional year of eligibility regardless of whether they play in fall, spring or decide against participation due to health concerns. The decision will require adjustments to scholarship limits to the respective sports, including football, women's volleyball and men's and women's soccer.

Also, a number of other protections for student athletes recommended by the Division I Council were approved, including prohibiting schools from requiring athletes to sign a waiver before participating in competition, requiring schools to honor scholarship commitments for any student who opts out due to COVID concerns, and informing students of risk classification of their particular sport.

With that said, many universities both large and small are dealing with financial issues and, the losses are in the millions so I’m not so sure schools that are already slashing staff, salaries and sports can fund additional scholarships along with necessary equipment, travel, medical or meals. While some of the big name schools might do OK, the smaller programs and schools are going to face difficult choices including eliminating all sports or closing its doors.

We’ve seen a number of colleges cancelling sports programs entirely, others canceling the sports season while others have eliminated certain sports, forcing these athletes to find a new school all together if they want to continue to play collegiate sports.

SA: Where can high school students get information on how the NCAA has altered eligibility requirements in the wake of COVID-19's impact -- e-learning, hybrid courses, pass-fail grades, etc. -- on high school students?

LISA LAVELLE: The NCAA recently published a 7-page document to address these issues:

NCAA Eligibility Center COVID-19 Response FAQs

SA: COVID-19 preventing high school students from taking ACT or SAT college entrance exams has prompted more than 1,600 of colleges and universities to embrace a test-optional policy for the class of 2021. Many of those have already announced they would extend the test-optional policy beyond the class of 2021, such as the University of California system, which will be test optional until 2022 and stop using the SAT and ACT altogether in 2024. How does that affect the NCAA's eligibility requirements?

LISA LAVELLE: The eligibility criteria detailed in the NCAA Eligibility Center FAQs exclude standardized test scores. And the NCAA has stated “student-athletes who meet the “Core Course & GPA” requirements will be considered eligible.

With that said, admission is ultimately up to each particular college. That’s why it is important aspiring college-bound student-athletes meet or exceed admission requirements. And if they choose to play college sports, meeting or exceeding the eligibility minimum is essential. Every college is looking for the brightest and best prospects who want to remain in their school should injury happen and they can no longer play sports. Admissions officers and colleges are looking for prospects that excel in the classroom and on the field. They want to graduate you on time and ensure the experience is fulfilling.

Universities moving to “test optional” admissions recognize that SAT/ACT test scores are not an end-all to judging applicants. They are looking at the classes/courses taken/passes, GPA, community service and, the student-athlete as a “whole person.”

I think as more colleges take this approach, the NCAA and other governing bodies of sports will simply require student-athletes to register, have their school upload their high school transcripts to verify courses taken, pass along the earned GPA, and perhaps simply eliminate the SAT/ACT altogether.

Another reason for going test-optional is to offer a fairer approach when it comes to considering applicants, as the test scores do not accurately reflect a student’s academic background much less their future success. PBS' Frontline and the Nonpartisan Education Review have done excellent reporting on the history of the SAT and the College Board, a non-profit ($1 billion of annual revenue) that is subsidized by tax-payer dollars and appears to be extremely profitable. One thing for sure, "test optional" saves parents and students money.

SA: Would you like to speculate what long-term impact COVID will have on college soccer? Will there be a difference in the impact between men's and women's college soccer?

LISA LAVELLE: While I don’t like to speculate on the total number of collegiate programs that will be around in the next 3 to 5 years, given the fluid nature of the global pandemic many colleges can’t last long without the revenue international students generate and without revenues generated from football and men's and women's basketball media rights. Colleges will continue to cut non-revenue sports, perhaps put them in a “hiatus” status or convert them to “club” sports till the schools can get back to a positive cash flow.

Clearly there are implications that will likely have a bigger impact on men’s sports than women’s sports because of Title IX requirements stipulating that a certain percentage of a school’s scholarships are allocated to women. With the NCAA rules being under constant review during the COVID crisis – the implications for the sports landscape given college athletics serves as a feeder program for many U.S. Olympic teams.

While the current NCAA requirements for sports sponsorship differ based on the scope of a school’s athletic department, the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools are required to sponsor 16 teams, the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) schools and those that don’t play football are required to sponsor only 14 teams. It could be schools that choose to “suspend” certain sports or place them on a “hiatus” are still within the Title IX rules/regulations. However, this is ultimately decided by the NCAA and their committees, which are represented by university staff. They are responsible for creating and administering policy rules.

No doubt it’s a tough situation for the colleges, the kids and coaches. The NCAA has extended the “dead period” (when coaches may not have in-person contact with recruits and/or their parents) till January 2021 for Division I sports. I’d encourage folks to monitor the NCAA for changes.

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NCAA Eligibility Center
Certifies a prospective college athletes is eligible to play NCAA Division I or II sports.

NAIA Eligibility Center
Certifies a prospective college athletes is eligible to play NAIA sports

National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA)
Governing body of 500-plus community, state and junior colleges.

United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA)
Eligibility guidelines and eligibility form for USCAA members; 78 small colleges, community colleges and junior colleges.

National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA)
Eighty-nine members are Christian universities, colleges, and Bible colleges, including ones that also compete in NCAA and NAIA.

U.S. Department of Education’s Net Price Calculator
Links to all colleges and universities to get a better idea of the cost and scholarships you may be eligible for.

Federal Student Aid
Grant, scholarship, financial aid & student loan information; free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Financial Aid Estimator.

(Lisa Lavelle is President of The Sport Source, which has been connecting kids to college opportunities since 1989. Its College Finder MATCHFIT includes colleges/universities in the United State & Canada and, covers NCAA Division I, II, III, NAIA, USCAA, NCCAA and, NJCAA sports [Facebook])

1 comment about "College-bound student-athletes: Lisa Lavelle on COVID-19's impact, sports eligibility changes, and the 'test optional' trend".
  1. Wooden Ships, October 15, 2020 at 10:44 a.m.

    As a retired university soccer coach I feel for the current situation and believe it's a bump in the road, albeit the most severe speed bump. 

    I feel compelled to add however, that education is considered an investment and with risk. I'm not of the fold that student debt is anyone's responsibility except for the individual. One does not, should not, feel that this risk goes beyond the risk taker. Buyer beware knowledge seems to have faded in the atmosphere of pandering politicians and educators. While the current student-athlete situation is problematic we must remember the vast majority of people, both here and abroad, can't realize the opportunity for higher ed. 

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