The Academic Progress Report continues to create challenges for schools from the MEAC and SWAC
By Chuck Burton
College Sporting News
PHILADELPHIA — On May 25, the NCAA handed out its Academic Progress Rate (APR) penalties for schools that have not met the NCAA's minimum acceptable score of 925.
Teams from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU's) were disproportionately slammed with penalties — scholarship restrictions, practice restrictions and, in some cases, postseason bans.
There have been many experts that have noticed the trend that HBCU's are suffering the most from the NCAA's APR penalty system, not least NCAA President Mark Emmert, who has voiced his concerns.
But what really ought to happen is to seriously restructure the APR system immediately — and even reverse the penalties the NCAA waged against the HBCU population.
Jackson State and Southern's football teams were hit with "Occasion Three" postseason bans and scholarship restrictions, while Texas Southern's football team will have to make do with twelve fewer scholarships due to their "Occasion Two" penalties.
"You're right that there are a number of historically black colleges and universities that have been penalized, especially through the postseason ban," Emmert mentioned in the press conference announcing the APR penalties. "We are concerned about that, have met with those institutions to help them develop ways for improvement and to help provide resources to help them be successful."
That's encouraging that Emmert has met with the chancellors of the MEAC and SWAC, including SWAC commissioner Duer Sharp.
But a discussion between college presidents needs to be much more far-reaching than one of making HBCU's fit the APR's numbers.
In fact, you can make the case that the APR's numbers have little to do with the realities on the ground for HBCU's.
HOW THE APR WORKS
To understand why, you need to take a look at how the APR is calculated.
Broadly speaking, the 925 APR number that the NCAA uses as a benchmark is considered the equivalent of a 60% graduation rate.
The NCAA has determined the best way to compute a 60% graduation rate is to grant points per marking period for retention (staying in school) and staying academically eligible (maintaining a 2.0 grade point average, or GPA).
But note that half of the computation for the APR has to do with retention, not academics. *That means if an athlete drops out due to family finances or family issues, that counts against the schools APR numbers even if the student is doing fine in the classroom.
THE FINANCIAL PICTURE
Among HBCU's, retention problems are made worse due to the financial picture of the schools themselves.
While Ohio State has an endowment of over $2 billion dollars, the combined endowment of the schools of SWAC and MEAC combined don't even come close to half that number.
The state flagship of Ohio spends $105 million on athletics in a single season. In contrast, Texas Southern - one of the schools cited for APR violations - spends $8.8 million on its entire athletics program, or 1/11 of what The Ohio State University spends.
Almost all HBCUs rely on heavy dollops of state and federal aid — and state and federal legislators, eager to find places to cut funding, have been slicing into a significant portion of this money in order to balance their books.
Smaller endowments and less state and federal aid means that HBCU's have less to spend on financial aid for students, never mind athletes — and with less financial aid available, HBCU's are less able to retain its students.
These numbers are borne out by the overall six-year graduation rate of HBCU's, and the African-American graduation rate as a whole.
The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported in 2006 that the graduation rate among African-American students was 42% nationally. *Among African-American men, the graduation rate was 35% - and falling.
And unsurprisingly, it's HBCU's that suffered the most from these statistics.
"At 24 HBCUs — nearly one half of all HBCUs in our survey — two thirds or more of all entering black students do not go on to earn a diploma," the article states. *"In addition, the black colleges on the whole have very small and totally inadequate endowments. They often lack the resources necessary to generate funds for student financial aid. Often they are unable to furnish sufficient aid packages for upperclassmen to permit them to stay in school. This circumstance appears to be a major factor in accounting for the low black student graduation rate at these schools."
And, interestingly, the three FCS teams cited for penalties in 2011, Jackson State (36%), Southern University (26%) and Texas Southern University (14%), all had institutional graduation rates less than the 60% benchmark instituted by the NCAA in 2006.
In fact, in the case of Southern University the football team had a better retention rates than the overall student body, based on the 2006 figures.
Based on these overall retention numbers, how can HBCU's be expected to adhere to the same guidelines as Ohio State?
THE HBCU MISSION
Furthermore, HBCU's have other challenges that BCS-level schools do not have to worry about.
One challenge is that the mission of HBCU's is to educate kids who come from families without a history of collegiate participation.
“We’ve been educating first-generation college attendees," SWAC commissioner Duer Sharp said in a recent article on the NCAA website. *"A lot of times, we are second-chance universities for kids who struggled and wanted another chance at an education and an athletic career in an atmosphere that is beneficial to them.”
As a part of that mission, HBCU's frequently take on transfers from the junior college system.
Remedial course work is sometimes required to bring these transfers up to speed in the classroom – classes that, for the purposes of the NCAA measurements, don’t count as course credit.
HBCU's also educate a large number of "non-traditional" enrollees - for example, students over the age of 25 or students eligible for Pell Grants.
Over half of Southern University's student body falls under this category.
Aside from the issues of financial retention, many students come to HBCU's needing additional skills to survive in the academic environment of an institution of higher learning.
At the rich, BCS-level schools, the solution is to throw money at the athletics department in order to provide extensive personal tutoring, high technology and guidance counseling — money that HBCU's simply do not have.
“I’m embarrassed because of what came out,” one SWAC athletic director told me in 2007. “But if we had the resources to make it better for our students, we’d have done that. If we could afford summer school for all our athletes, we would do that. We want to make sure our kids get whatever they need to graduate.”
To top it all off, HBCU's often have a lot of turnover as well where long-term initiatives are made — at the top.
“The turnover rate both at the presidential and athletics department level is another contributing factor,” NCAA executive director Bernard Franklin said. “This is not an issue that is solely endemic to HBCUs, but, coupled with limited resources, it does present a unique challenge to HBCUs and their efforts to improve APR scores.”
“All change really comes from the top," Sharp added. "To effect change, there has to be a directive from the president or chancellor. But with the turnover, you never get that directive. That chancellor or president is no longer there after they give that order. *It really makes it difficult when you don’t have that constant voice from the top asking, ‘Where are we on APR?’ When you get a new president coming in, they’ve got 800 other things on their plate.”
THE FAILURE OF APR
The NCAA's APR program has done a fine job to encourage the richer, BCS-level schools to focus millions of dollars on educating their athletes and making sure they graduate.
But in terms of resource-poor institutions with different missions than schools with gigantic athletic departments, the APR has not served it well.
Every college wants its students to earn a college degree.
But the NCAA's APR program has been punishing HBCU's — even when their graduation rates are equivalent, or even exceed, the rate of the rest of the student body.
It's fundamentally unfair.
FIXING THE PROBLEMS
Fortunately, this unfairness can easily be fixed.
Schools should get an immediate APR historic penalty exemption if the APR rate of the team in question corresponds to a number greater than the graduation rate of the student body, and the team has not faced NCAA infractions in the last four years.
These exemptions should also be retroactive, possibly erasing historic penalties from previous years.
And if there is extra course credit required to get junior college transfers up to speed with the academics of the institution, it should count towards their APR numbers.
Rather than forcing HBCU's to conform to arbitrary APR numbers, it would be a way for the NCAA to recognize the challenges that HBCU's face — and to not add athletic punishment to their list of concerns.