The NCAA transfer portal initially launched in 2018 and has gone through multiple changes. The one-time transfer rule was nixed in 2021, allowing athletes to transfer once without having to sit out for a year. The NCAA adopted transfer windows in 2022 to mitigate the number of athletes transferring in and out.
As coaches and athletes are adapting to the transfer portal’s effects on the field, academic staffers are also trying to figure out how to keep up.
How does an athletic department process an incoming transfer?
If a coach is interested in an athlete in the portal, then an academic staffer within the athletic department will conduct an initial evaluation of that athlete’s transcript (or transcripts, if that athlete has attended multiple institutions.)
The evaluation checks how many courses the athlete has taken which would have a direct equivalent at the new school. If there’s no clear equivalent course, then the staff has to take extra steps to make the determination.
Ultimately the school, not the athletic department, has the final say on whether or not an athlete can be admitted, as Arizona State associate athletic director for football and men’s basketball academics Courtney Skipper explained:
“There’s an academic evaluation that happens,” Skipper said. “But even in that situation, nothing is guaranteed. We essentially say, ‘Hey, we think this person looks good, and they should be good to go to come here. But it’s not guaranteed until our campus does their evaluation, which doesn’t happen until you get admitted into the school.”
How are academic staffers dealing with increased transferring?
More Division I athletes entered the portal in 2022 than in 2021, NCAA data showed. And according to The Athletic, there was an 18 percent increase in Division I FBS football players who entered the transfer portal in the 2022-2023 cycle compared to the previous cycle.
With more student-athletes transferring, academic staffers are having to process more transcripts.
“We do feel an increased volume of potential transfers and actual transfers into the athletic department. The responsibilities fall on the same person who handles initial eligibility, but the volume is much greater,” Kentucky senior associate athletic director for academics Paul Downey said.
And with the speed at which college athletics move, academic staffers have to keep up with the coaches and their recruitment of transfers.
“A guy goes into the transfer portal at 10 p.m. and already he’s getting calls from coaches by midnight. And by 8 a.m. I have an email in my inbox with a transcript and they’re trying to get it done so they can try and get him on a visit the next day,” said Kim Gross, Kansas State’s associate director of the Evans Student-Athlete Success Program.
Although the athletic staffers are aware of how quickly things have to move in college sports, sometimes they’re stuck waiting on the school itself for final confirmation of a potential transfer’s status.
“[We] have to send those transcripts to campus to get evaluated,” Gross said. “So sometimes the overwhelming and stressful piece is because we have to wait on other people in order to give coaches an answer on if a transfer student will be able to come and be eligible academically.”
New issues with the portal
As transferring becomes more common, some academic staffers say not all student-athletes are fully aware of how transferring will affect their academics.
“So I’ll say the biggest issue slash trouble is when students realize not all of their transfer credit has moved on to the next university,” Skipper said. “And these student-athletes are not being told that about the portal. No one is speaking about the fact that no matter where you transfer to, you are delaying your graduation.”
Aside from a delayed graduation, transferring may mean that a student has to give up their original major to go to their new school in the event that it is not offered at the new institution.
“You might not be able to be the same major, especially when you’re later on in your career like upperclassmen. They have such high numbers of transfer credits that they have to meet towards a certain degree, and sometimes it’s not going to be in the major you want,” Gross said.
One possible situation for mitigating the misunderstandings about the academic consequences of transferring is having a frank conversation with student-athletes before they enter the portal.
“I totally understand that the student-athlete’s entering the portal because they want to leave, but we are student services focused,” Gross said. “Our focus is service and students. So I do think that if athletic counselors could have a conversation with those people entering the portal and just say, ‘Here’s some common questions that you should ask,’ or like, ‘This is probably what’s going to happen next in terms of academics,’ I think that’d be really helpful.”
Transferring doesn’t always work out due to academic reasons. Former North Carolina men’s basketball star Caleb Love initially committed to Michigan, but didn’t have enough transferable credits to clear admissions at Ann Arbor, according to a CBS Sports report. Love ended up committing to Arizona instead.
“If a student ever comes up [to me about entering the portal], I’m always gonna want to have those honest conversations with them because I don’t want them making mistakes and just saying, ‘OK, if you go to this school, you might lose all these credits and you’ll be further back from graduation. You might not be in the degree that you want too,’ so it’s really putting a lot of strain on the academic side of it,” said Tatjana Banjeglav, Houston’s assistant athletics director for academic services.
Although the execution of the transfer portal hasn’t been perfect and unanswered questions still remain, the benefits of the portal haven’t been lost on everyone.
“I think there still are positives to the transfer portal, and that I think can sometimes get lost,” Gross said. “Some student-athletes get somewhere and it’s hard. It’s hard geographically; they’re away from home; athletically it’s not working out how they thought it was gonna work out. And so I do think there are positives to the transfer portal that shouldn’t go unnoticed.”
The future of post-portal academics
While the full effects of the transfer portal may not be fully realized, there are other factors at play that could affect the academic side of college athletics.
The NCAA’s Academic Performance Program (APR) penalties are set to return in the 2024-2025 school year after a pause during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The transfer portal has definitely done a whirlwind on us. I think a lot of people don’t really understand that APR is still coming back now,” Banjeglav said. “For a couple years we didn’t have those penalties from the NCAA because of COVID. And students weren’t graduating and that’s going to impact programs too.”
Schools could be impacted by APR if an incoming transfer isn’t eligible in their major from their previous school and refuses to switch into a major that they would be eligible in.
The benchmark APR score for a team to avoid penalties and be eligible for the postseason is 930, which is the same number before COVID-19 hit.
“Teams that score below the benchmark will face penalties that encourage an increased emphasis on academics. Penalties and the loss of access to postseason competition will be announced in spring 2024, and both will be imposed in 2024-25,” the NCAA said on its website.
While the NCAA hasn’t further specified the penalties that will return, one of the more severe APR sanctions was handed to the UConn men’s basketball team a decade ago. UConn lost two scholarships for the 2011-2012 season and was barred from the 2012-2013 postseason.