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Graduate Transfer Rule – College Athletics Version of Free-Agency

Dana Drew Shaw

Dana Drew Shaw

In college athletics, a student-athlete who wishes to transfer between four-year, Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) universities must sit out a full year before participating in athletics at a new school. Traditionally, this rule was meant to encourage an academic focus based on research that shows graduation rates were higher for student-athletes who remained at one university throughout their academic career. But an exception in Article 14.6.1 of the NCAA bylaws provides student-athletes, who have eligibility remaining, an exemption by permitting them to enroll in a graduate program at a new school playing immediately if a bachelor’s degree has already been completed.

The main goal of the “Graduate Transfer Exception” is to offer student-athletes who have excelled academically the opportunity to work toward furthering their education without forfeiting their remaining athletic eligibility. However, many believe the Graduate Transfer Exception is being abused as a form of free agency with hopes of winning a national championship rather than an effort to seek higher education.

This argument has been a hot subject recently, as quarterbacks Everett Golson and Vernon Adams have used the Graduate Transfer Exception to play their upcoming senior seasons at Florida State and Oregon, respectively. Both the Seminoles and Ducks competed in the College Football Playoff last season while Florida State won the BCS National Championship Game in 2014. Golson, a two year starter for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, led the team to a BCS National Championship Game appearance in 2012. Adams was the most prolific quarterback in the FBS, leading Eastern Washington to a third-straight Big Sky Conference championship while winning a wealth of individual accolades.

Several coaches, administrators, and writers have expressed negative opinions toward the rule based on the premise that transferring players have no intention of completing a graduate degree and end up dropping out as soon as the season is complete. But the concern that student-athletes won’t finish a graduate program after transferring would be more troubling if the student-athletes had not already proven to be capable students in the classroom by receiving their bachelor’s degree in four years from their former schools. A 2014 study conducted by the NCAA indicates that many student-athletes who have taken advantage of the Graduate Transfer Exception continued or completed the academic program after their eligibility ended (Tracking Division I Graduate Transfers).


*NCAA Research

There is basis for the concern in men’s basketball and football where the study showed graduation rates at only one-third and one-quarter, respectively. However, these statistics are similar to the historical nature of the undergraduate graduation rates in these two sports. Furthermore, if student-athletes withdraw to pursue a professional sports career, they can always return to school to complete the graduate degree.

Despite the negative connotations associated with the Graduate Transfer Exception, a positive aspect is that it rewards student-athletes for graduating in a timely manner. At a minimum, it gives additional opportunities to student-athletes looking for one more year of school, and not every graduate transfer has the opportunity pick and choose nearly any top school in the NCAA, as is the case with Golson and Adams. NCAA research of graduate transfers for the years 2011 and 2012 found that “only one-quarter of graduate transfers departed for a school within the five major conferences,” which seems to indicate that many student-athletes transfer, not for the opportunity to play for a high-profile team that may give the student-athlete more professional visibility or the opportunity to compete for a championship, but instead simply for additional playing time with hopes that they can see the field and make an impact one more time before “hanging up the shoes.”

Although the Graduate Transfer Exception may seem like a form of free agency, and some have called for it to be eliminated, opinions shouldn’t be reached based upon the few higher profile uses of the exception every year, like Golson and Adams, or previous student-athletes such as Seattle Seahawks quarterback, Russell Wilson. Indeed, the exception allows for a small freedom to many student-athletes who have little bargaining power in an industry dominated by colleges and universities. If student-athletes are, in fact, students first, then any opportunity for a young man or woman to continue an education at the University of his or her choice should be applauded.

This article was written by Andrew Parsons, law student at the University of Toledo, with contributions from Seth Traub and Dana Drew Shaw. 

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