Breaking Down the Stakes Around the Extra Year of NCAA Eligibility

In October, the NCAA announced that all Division I winter athletes who competed during 2020-21 would be getting an extra year of eligibility and an extra year to complete said eligibility. 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, we cannot go over the scholarship cap, but that might differ for every school.”

If coaches don’t have any scholarship wiggle room, 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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1 year ago

There’s other considerations. In many top-tier institutions in STEM fields, the highest Grad School entrants aren’t paying tuition and are often given a stipend to teach a course or work in a lab. That would save scholarship cap space.

Reply to  Eddie Rowe
1 year ago

That’s plausible, but I think working in a lab or teaching a course and participating in varsity athletics at most top-tier institutions would be a very, very tall task.

I would suspect that very few who take advantage of this to work on a grad degree will do so in a STEM field. Even further, I would suspect that most of the individuals who are doing varsity athletics + STEM would need an extra semester or year to finish undergrad anyway.

The scenario you described would be very much an outlier case.

Bay City Tex
1 year ago

Jordan Windle coming back just made sure the Horns’ recruiting class will be #1 by a bunch!

1 year ago

How much different is transfer game different in swimming when you compared to for example like basketball? There was some article something like 8 transfers in Final Four and how they are changing the picture. Also lots of talk abotu coach having to “re:recruit” every player as they can so easily change scenery if they feel like it.

Swim Junkie
1 year ago

If I understand this correctly, this will affect high school recruits down to this year’s freshmen class. For the next four years, there will be high school seniors and college seniors competing for the same scholarships. We are going to see some interesting transfers and those schools with weaker swimming programs and strong graduate schools will see the most gains.

1 year ago

Does this extra year extend to athletes who took the year off from school? Or does this extra year of eligibility only apply to those who were enrolled for the 2020-21 year? In some scenarios, like at the Ivies or Stanford, some student athletes are not on the roster, due to taking time off in response to lack of training options at their school or lack of a season. Do they get an extra season too?

GA Fan
Reply to  confusedswimfan21
1 year ago

I don’t think so. Someone who took this year off just redshirted. This COVID year basically counts this year as a redshirt for everyone so if you legitimately redshirted this year you basically miss out on an extra season of competing.

Reply to  confusedswimfan21
1 year ago

The way I understand it, this year essentially doesn’t exist in the eyes of the 4 year clock. If they didn’t compete this year, they still maintain their 4 years of eligibility, but do not get another one.

Example: an athlete that competed their freshman year during the 2019-2020 season, then took a gap year this year, will still have 3 years of eligibility remaining next year. They will not have 4.

Julia Bats
1 year ago

NAIA can do this a lot of them have grad schools and scholarships!

Reply to  Julia Bats
1 year ago

Yes, but are any of them actually academically desirable?

Julia Bats
Reply to  HJones
1 year ago


1 year ago

So many more scenarios not explained in article!

One school (big power football probably) can have 15 mens scholarships but others limited to 9.9? And that might happen for 4 years!?

If school allows one person an extra year, does it have to allow all athletes the extra year?

Reply to  Superfan
1 year ago

No, the only year a school COULD go over their 9.9 would be for next season and that is for this years senior class only. Moving forward schools have to budget that with it their scholarship. So if school A is done with 2022 recruiting already, don’t expect many in the current junior class to be able to use that fifth year

Reply to  Dave
1 year ago


1 year ago

This will be really tough on incoming freshmen that will be competing against 5th year seniors for relay spots, especially when conference and NCAA championships come around again.

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  RHMSwim
1 year ago

Poor incoming freshman. Didn’t get to have an NCAA year of pandemic fun.

Swim Mom of Three
Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
1 year ago

Yes- they did. My daughter lost her senior year- just today went back to in person. Pools closed down for months. High School season will be crammed into the next four weeks or so but no state meet. Our state still isn’t allowing competitions. We couldn’t leave to compete in other states without quarantining for 14 days upon return until last month.

Reply to  RHMSwim
1 year ago

Dumb rule. Because of the rule, our state is now allowing high school kids do repeat their year of high school and to get another year of competition at the high school level. Terrible trickle down effect.

Reply to  Swimdad
1 year ago

If you don’t like, don’t take the extra HS year or college one! No one is making them do it are they?

The Importer AND Exporter
Reply to  Swimdad
1 year ago

I would expect that anyone who takes that fifth year of high school will be mocked something serious…

About Karl Ortegon

Karl Ortegon

Karl Ortegon studied sociology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, graduating in May of 2018. He began swimming on a club team in first grade and swam four years for Wesleyan.

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