Academic Progress Rate Flawed In College Hoops

Photo courtesy of NCAA.org

The Academic Progress Rate (APR) has claimed its first “big time” victim. Established in 2004 by the NCAA, the APR is a term-by-term measurement of eligibility and retention for Division I scholarship-student athletes, developed as an early indicator of eventual graduation rates. Just like many of the ideas put forth by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, it is a measurement that has many flaws and unfortunately this year those flaws hit the 2010-2011 NCAA Basketball National Champion the University of Connecticut Huskies hard, as they along with 9 other hoop teams who will be banned from the NCAA Tournament next March. Should the postseason ban hold after UConn appeals for the umpteenth time, the Big East has already announced that the Huskies will not be allowed to compete in the Big East Tournament either, a big blow to not only the fans in Storrs, Connecticut but everyone who comes out to the Madison Square Garden to watch the fantastic week of basketball under the bright lights of New York City.

One of the reasons that I became interested in sport management and sport administration is to prevent injustices like the ones facing UConn, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, California-Riverside, Jacksonville State, Mississippi Valley State, North Carolina-Wilmington, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Toledo and Towson this year in men’s basketball from occurring. To fans and alumni of the schools involved, I’m sorry that I am not in a position to fix the err of the NCAA’s ways, but at the very least through this blog I can attempt to raise awareness for this issue so that maybe one day the NCAA can find a more efficient and fair way to balance academics and athletics. I understand that it is far from a simple issue, but this APR as it is currently constituted is a failure as I don’t believe an arbitrary ranking or what really amounts to a projection should be the way that any team’s season ends.

Are academics important in college basketball and college sports in general? Of course they are. I’m not trying to say that colleges should not be held responsible for graduating their athletes. They should be. What I’m trying to say is that using a flawed system to gauge and track student-athletes progress is something that the NCAA needs to take a look at, and figure out a better way to get an accurate representation of the academic progress of ALL student-athletes. I don’t have those answers, but then again I’m not one of the 14 top NCAA executives who earned nearly $6 million combined during the 2009-2010 fiscal year. The only thing that I do know is that at least when it comes to college basketball the current APR is a joke and for the organization to implement such harsh penalties under these figures make me respect the organization a whole lot less.

Under the 1990 “Student Right-to Know Act” the mandatory publication of graduation rates came into effect. This act was supposed to create an environment where schools would be more devoted to academics and hold athletes accountable for their academic success, but obviously not too much has changed in the 20+ years this law has been in effect. In today’s college athletics coaches will do anything to win, including taking risks on higher skilled players who may not be the best academically, some who probably would not even make it into any university if it weren’t for their athletic prowess. That’s a risk that coaches take, and now under the APR rules schools are finally being punished for not graduating their athletes. To give you an idea of what kind of problems there are with athlete’s graduation rates, among students who entered college between 1993 and 1996 only 41 percent of basketball players graduated within six years. In other words, four of ten scholarship student –athletes who played college basketball managed to walk across the stage and earn their diploma within six years between 1993 and 1996. The other six didn’t all make it to the NBA, or even to professional leagues in other countries. For all intents and purposes, in the NCAA’s eyes these kids disappeared; no degree, no job, no future.

The NCAA decided something needed to be done about the low graduation rates, and in 2004 they implemented the APR as we know it today. The way the APR works is that every student-athlete who receive athletically related financial aid (read: scholarship) earns one retention point for staying in school and one eligibility point for remaining academically eligible. A team’s total points are divided by the possible points for that team and then multiplied by one-thousand to equal the teams Academic Progress Rate score. The highest possible score you can receive under this formula is 1000, and the teams that fail to achieve an APR score of 925 (equivalent to a 50% graduation rate) may face sanctions including public warning letters for poor performance, restrictions on scholarships and practice time, loss of postseason competition for the team, or most harshly restricted membership status for an institution where the school’s entire athletics program is penalized and they will not be considered a part of Division I. As of now, no school has received the most severe penalty, and hopefully none ever will. Also of note, the APR is calculated as a rolling, four-year figure that takes into account all the points that a student-athlete could potentially earn for remaining in school and staying academically eligible during the years that they should be at that college.

While individual GPA’s are protected by privacy laws, John Wall had been rumored to hurt Kentucky’s APR. He was a “one-and-done” player. (Getty Images)

On paper, the NCAA’s formula sounds great, right? Unfortunately it is not practical, especially in a sport like college basketball where it is becoming rare for a player to stick around for 4 years and play out their entire eligibility. With the emergence of the “one-and-done” players, a by-product of the NBA’s age rules, you see some student-athletes who will only be on campus for one, maybe two years. Even worse, for the players who are sure-fire draft picks after their freshman seasons all that they have to do to remain eligible by NCAA rules is complete their first semester with a minimum grade point average related to their institution’s graduation requirements (typically a C- in each class). These student-athletes have to be enrolled for a minimum of six credit hours during their spring semester, but since grades do not become official until typically after the competition season is over these student-athletes are under no real obligation to even attend those classes. When you know that you have millions of dollars waiting for you as long as you stay healthy there is little incentive for these “professional athletes in waiting”, so they live it up without regard for how their GPA drops. The APR as its written tries to combat this practice, but it’s still prevalent on many campuses and smart coaches are now giving scholarships to student-athletes who may not have the athletic skills to deserve one, but who can raise the team GPA instead. The student-athletes who leave college in good academic standing don’t help a team’s rate, but the ones that leave while ineligible do count against the team and cause the APR to go down.

There’s one more huge flaw in the APR as it relates to college basketball…that is, how do you handle transfers? If a student-athlete leaves a school for any reason the same principle applies, except that if the student-athlete graduates at his second school his original school does not get credit for that. The APR “clock” begins when a student-athlete first steps foot on campus, and when he decides to leave that school to continue his education at another institution his original team gets docked for it, whether or not he was in good academic standing at the time. Student-athletes switch schools all the time, whether that be to get more playing time at another school, to be closer to home, or even to follow the coach that recruited him who left without any consequences. It’s unbelievable that a team’s APR rate would drop even if a student-athlete did finish his education and graduate from another institution, but the way the system works now still penalizes the student-athletes original team. I can’t be the only person to have a problem with that.

Schools do not to be held responsible for providing student-athletes with an opportunity to excel both on the court and in the classroom and for the most part they do present those opportunities. The same way that athletes are held accountable by eligibility requirements, I do feel that universities need to be held accountable for graduating athletes and the APR, while flawed, is an attempt to make them responsible for that. It is a step in the right direction but the kinks need to be ironed out before the NCAA implements a punishment as severe as a postseason ban. Another important missing ingredient in accountability is that currently coaches are not held responsible for graduating student-athletes, at least directly. Why should coaches be able to leave a school without any consequences, while a student-athlete needs to sit out a season if he wants to transfer? That’s not right, in my humble opinion.

As expected, UConn men’s basketball received an APR ranking of 978 out of a possible 1000 when the NCAA released its APR report for the 2010-2011 academic year on Wednesday. That number is still not high enough to offset low scores from previous years, and under rules implemented last October the NCAA requires a team to have a 900 average over four years or a 930 over two years to qualify for its postseason. After scoring a 826 APR score for the 2009-2010 academic year, the Huskies hoops team has a four year score of 889 and a two-year average of 902, results far short of the NCAA’s expectations. UConn athletic director Warde Manuel is still urging the NCAA to use data from the 2011-2012 academic year, something that he said would make his team eligible as they expected high scores for the season that that just ended, but as of now the NCAA has denied every appeal and waiver request by the school.

It is going to be weird not seeing the Connecticut Huskies in the NCAA Men’s Tournament, but even more strange not seeing them compete in the “Big Apple” in the Big East Tournament. As any real fan of college basketball remembers, the Huskies 2010-2011 championship season had them rolling through five games in five nights at Madison Square Garden in winning the Big East Tournament led by Kemba Walker, and now next season they won’t be even be participating in that tournament no matter how they do in the regular season. To make matters worse, some key players have already transferred to other universities, including Alex Oriakhi transferring to Missouri for his senior season (where he will likely graduate, stalling UConn’s APR for the next season), sophomore Roscoe Smith heading to UNLV and Michael Bradley headed to Western Kentucky. UConn also lost center Andre Drummond who will be a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, so there may be some tough times in Storrs over the next couple seasons.

The NCAA needs to take a look at their APR and how it is calculated, and I hope that the postseason bans to UConn and these other nine basketball programs will be a wake-up call for the governing body of college athletics. Unfortunately, I feel like this will fall on deaf ears, and that the NCAA will fall back on the fact that prior to 2010-2011 only four teams have received postseason bans. Instead, I have a feeling that NCAA will look at the fact that if the new 930 two-year rule had been in effect for the 2011-2012 season than 99 teams would have received postseason bans, and that the fact that only 10 received them now that this rule has been put into effect is progress. Over the course of one year that is way too small of a sample size that doesn’t really tell you anything relevant, but hey, the numbers work right?

A picture of UConn’s 2012-2013 basketball postseason (inquisitr.com)

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