Horse Has Already Left the Barn with Grand Canyon

grand canyon university division 1When Grand Canyon’s move to Division I was announced late last year, I took a look at the controversy surrounding the addition of a for-profit school to the NCAA’s top division. The conclusion was that letting Grand Canyon’s athletic department into the Division I was far from a ridiculous proposal. The only big objection might be to the school’s for-profit status, and it would require focusing on some very nebulous requirements for membership in Division I.

That speculation has become a reality with the Pac-12 raising the issue to the NCAA in a letter from commissioner Larry Scott:

“It’s gotten on the radar of our schools and are trying to raise it as a policy issue as to whether for-profit schools ought to be playing Division I athletics, or not, before there are any,” Scott said. “It’s always hard to put the genie back in the bottle.”

The problem is the genie was let out of the bottle in 2004. That’s when Grand Canyon became a for-profit entity after being purchased by Significant Education, LLC.

Scott and the Pac-12 are correct that there has not been a conversation about for-profit schools in Division I. But that would miss the point based on Division I’s philosophy statement and membership requirements. The part of that philosophy which connects best with GCU’s for-profit status is the requirement that an institution “subscribes to high standards of academic quality, as well as breadth of academic opportunity.”

GCU’s for-profit status should not be an issue by itself. It is in how that for-profit status affects the academic mission of the school. A nonprofit private or even state university with the same low graduation rates as GCU should come under scrutiny, while a for-profit institution with high graduation rates and reasonably priced degrees should be treated just like a nonprofit with that track record.

Given GCU’s business model and graduation rates, Division I should not simply let them in without question. But the current members of Division I should keep this portion of the philosophy statement in mind as well:

Understands, respects and supports the programs and philosophies of other divisions. Occasionally, institutions from other divisions or athletics associations will seek membership in Division I. In such cases, the applicants should be required to meet, over a period of time, prescribed criteria for Division I membership in order to assure that such institutions agree and comply with the principles and program objectives embodied in this statement.

Division I members are asked not to evaluate Division II or III members as they are, but rather as they could become over time in Division I. To date, Grand Canyon meets every published requirement to move up to Division I. The appropriate place for seeing if Division I athletics and a for-profit university can co-exist is through the reclassification process.

For the Pac-12 to make the issue simply about for-profit universities generally smack of a “not in my backyard” attitude, almost literally given that the concern about GCU were first brought up by their Pac-12 neighbor, Arizona State. The Pac-12 appears to have had no problem being associated with Grand Canyon university as fellow NCAA members for almost 10 years, so long as the ‘Lopes stayed on the other side of the tracks in Division II. But when the WAC sold GCU a house in the same suburb as the Pac-12 (not even the same neighborhood), now it becomes an issue.

There are definitely more benefits to being in Division I than Division II. And it is easy to imagine the scenario where a for-profit company can abuse those benefits in ways that nonprofit or state universities currently do not. But if for-profit status is really a philosophical issue, it is an issue about NCAA membership and trading on the association’s name, not just Division I. With 10 years and nary a peep it seems from anyone, that ship appears to have sailed.

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