Graduate Transfers Become a Disruptive Force in College Sports

The rise of so-called "super seniors" is combining with the NCAA's new transfer portal and name, image and likeness rules to shake up college sports.
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  • The pandemic forced the NCAA to add an extra year of eligibility for student-athletes.
  • Basketball teams in the 2022 men's and women's Final Four featured these "super seniors."
  • An NCAA study shows the growing number of graduate students who continued in athletics.

As the University of Kansas men's basketball team marched to an NCAA championship this year, it was hard to ignore the outsized role that older students played in that success.

They included Mitch Lightfoot, a 24-year-old bench player, and point guard Remy Martin, a 23-year-old transfer from Arizona State University. They were joined by 25-year-old guard Jalen Coleman-Lands.

Both Lightfoot and Martin were able to play this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. All are eligible to play again next year.

“Because the pandemic forced the cancellation of many tournaments and the 2020 national basketball tournament, the NCAA added an extra year of eligibility for student-athletes.”

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Before the pandemic, college athletes had five years to complete four seasons of play, the so-called Five-Year Rule. But because the pandemic forced the cancellation of many tournaments and the 2020 national basketball tournament, the NCAA added an extra year of eligibility for student-athletes.

As a result, all of the teams in this year's Final Four, both men and women, had players enjoying an extra year of playing time. Villanova University had three graduate students on its men's tournament team, including 22-year-old star guard Collin Gillespie.

"I don't think there's any question that any of us in college athletics would see the benefits of a more experienced squad," Tom Burnett, commissioner of the Southland Conference and the chairman of the Division I men's basketball selection committee, told The New York Times.

The rise in the number of graduate athletes, also known as super seniors, is just one of the trends shaking up college athletics, along with the increasing popularity of the transfer portal and the new name, image, and likeness (NIL) rules.

NIL rules allow students to monetize their fame for the first time ever. The transfer portal has been particularly disruptive because students who enter it can change schools and play at their new schools without having to sit out a year. It's been fertile ground for coaches seeking to fill out their rosters and add the experience that graduate transfer players can provide.

The University of Minnesota women's basketball team had three graduate players this year, including two who were starters. The team's coach, Lindsay Whalen, says she is looking for more transfers for next year because seven players on her team have entered the transfer portal.

"That's what everybody's doing, every coach I've talked to," Whalen told The Bemidji Pioneer newspaper. "I've gotten phone calls and texts from a lot of coaches who are in that same boat. That's all anybody's kind of doing, that's kind of what it's turned into now."

The exact number of graduate students playing in college sports this year hasn't been reported. But an earlier NCAA study found that the number of graduate students who transferred to a new school to continue their Division I athletic careers more than doubled from 2014-2019.

In raw numbers, there were 706 graduate transfers during that time period, equalling 0.6% of all Division 1 athletes. Graduate transfers were most prevalent on a percentage basis in men's basketball, women's basketball, football, and men's and women's track and field.

Fueling that trend was an increasing number of Division I athletes who completed their undergraduate degrees in less than four years. In fact, a record number of Division I athletes were completing their undergraduate degrees early prior to the pandemic, according to the same NCAA study that examined graduate transfers.

“While many students are opting to extend their playing careers, not everyone is on board with the trend.”

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But while many students are opting to extend their playing careers, not everyone is on board with the trend. Some worry that athletes staying in school longer will impact the recruiting of future athletes and that scholarships will be used up.

"A lot of us are asking that question: Are the opportunities still there for high school student-athletes?" says Adam Berkowitz, associate executive director of New Heights Youth, a sports-based youth development nonprofit in New York.

"It's just a logjam at a lot of places. If 200 guys are taking their fifth year, that's 200 fewer spots for high school graduates," he said.

Meanwhile, the Ivy League has decided to go in a different direction. It will end its year-old policy that allowed graduate students to compete for an extra season this year.

In February 2021, the Ivy League Council of Presidents announced that senior student-athletes would be given an extra year of competitive eligibility if they enroll in a graduate program at their current university for the 2021–2022 academic year. But in January 2022, the Council of Presidents voted to end that policy, returning to pre-pandemic rules.