Breaking Down the Stakes Around the Extra Year of NCAA Eligibility


In October, the NCAA announced that all Division I winter athletes would be getting an extra year of eligibility and an extra year to complete said eligibility, regardless of whether or not they competed in the 2020-21 season. Instead of having five years to use four seasons of eligibility, the number is now six years to complete five, since the 2020-21 season did not count for either metric.

What does that mean for swimmers, divers and coaches, exactly? Unfortunately, it’s not a simple answer.

The NCAA granted the eligibility extensions, but things like financial aid, roster size, grad programs available and more are dependent on each school and swimming & diving program. It’s ultimately up to each school and coach to decide if and when they want to extend their scholarship limit to include fifth-year seniors or fifth-year transfers, which could make the decision for a lot of student-athletes.

Because each school has different rules around roster sizes and scholarship availability, anyone seeking to transfer for their fifth year will have to follow the rules of whatever school they’re trying to transfer to, which unsurprisingly can be an obstacle.

From the student-athletes’ perspective, an extra season has plenty of big decisions tied with it. Let’s say an athlete at University A wants a fifth year with University A, but their desired grad program isn’t offered at University A, it’s at University B. But, the swimming & diving program at University B might not have any scholarship cap space, so the financial burden suddenly becomes massive. University C might have room for another scholarship, but their grad program might not be what the student-athlete wanted.

“It really depends on so many things,” said Northwestern head coach Katie Robinson on a phone call this morning.

“Some coaches can help you get into a grad program at their institution, some can’t. And there are obviously financial decisions to be made. At Northwestern, next season is the only year we can go over the scholarship cap, but that might differ for every school.”

If coaches don’t have any scholarship wiggle room (and many, like Northwestern, will not after next season), that means anyone who is a junior or younger during the 2020-21 season won’t have any scholarship guarantees.

Robinson says that the NU staff sat down with the team and got a sense from underclassmen and seniors alike what they wanted to do. She says some seniors were looking at grad programs at other universities, which she was happy to help them on that process, while some underclassmen said they simply had no idea what they would want in a couple of years.

“We have to make some tough decisions, since not every senior who wants to come back a fifth year will necessarily be able to,” said Robinson. “It’s not only because of scholarship caps, but we have roster numbers to hit and we need to be cognizant of the 2021 and 2022 recruiting classes and if we have space for everyone.”

Because the COVID-19 extra year of eligibility depends on multiple factors between the student-athlete, coach, athletic department and school, it’s likely that swimmers and divers seeking the extra year will be more of an exception than a rule. Of course, if things line up for a student-athlete, the door is open for them to utilize the extra year, which we’ve already seen happen (here’s an example, though note that Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League canceled the 2020-21 season, so a senior athlete at a program that didn’t have a season likely has more motive to pursue another year).

Robinson confirmed that Northwestern will make an announcement later this year about their senior class and what’s next for them. We will likely see that kind of announcement out of most programs over the next few months as we track where any post-grad seniors might be landing.





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