Having failed to improve athletes' graduation rates appreciably during the past 20 years, the NCAA plans to get tough next year with schools that do a poor job educating their student-athletes. Under a new academic-reform initiative, the NCAA will begin stripping teams of athletic scholarships for one year if their athletes continue to struggle in the classroom and graduate at unacceptable rates.
Here are some basics about the NCAA's initiative:
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Q: What is the NCAA doing and why?
A: The NCAA is trying to get schools to improve athletes' graduation rates through a program of incentives and disincentives.
To that end, the NCAA on Monday released reams of data compiled in 2003-04 about the academic progress of scholarship athletes in Division I.
This data will be added to similar data from the 2004-05 school year and used to determine which schools merit punishment -- specifically, scholarship reductions for teams that chronically under perform in the classroom. The incentives for teams with high graduation rates haven't been worked out yet, but NCAA officials concluded that a carrot-and-stick approach was necessary to improve athletes' performance in school because encouragement and embarrassment haven't worked.
Q: What does APR stand for and how is it computed?
A: APR stands for Academic Progress Rate. It's a number assigned to every team that competes in NCAA Division I team and will determine whether the team is subject to scholarship reductions because of its athletes' poor performance in the classroom. An APR of 1,000 is perfect. An APR of 925 equates to about a 50 percent graduation rate and is considered minimally acceptable. Anything below 925 subjects a team to possible scholarship reductions.
The APR will be computed every semester as follows: Each scholarship athlete on a roster can score two points -- one for being academically eligible (maintaining a grade-point average that keeps them on track to graduate); one for re-enrolling in school the next semester. You take the total points scored by the team and divide by the total points possible, then multiply by 1,000.
Example: A soccer team has 10 scholarship athletes. One signs a contract with D.C. United and leaves school early, but in good academic standing; he scores one point. Another player fails every class and quits school; he scores zero points. Everyone else remains in good academic standing and stays in school; they score 16 points. The team's APR is 17 divided by 20 (0.850), multiplied by 1,000 (850). Because 850 is below the 925 cutoff, the team is subject to losing one or more scholarships for one year.
Q: What teams will lose scholarships?
A: Two things must happen for a team to lose a scholarship. First, the team's APR must be below 925. Second, one or more players must have left school early AND in poor academic standing. If a team has an APR of 900 and lost two players before they graduated because they either dropped out, transferred or turned pro, the team would lose NO scholarships as long as the two players were in good academic standing and COULD have re-enrolled if they wanted to. Conversely, if a team has an APR of 930 and lost a player because he flunked out of school, it would not lose a scholarship because the team's APR is above the 925 cutoff.
Q: Is there a limit on how many scholarships a team can lose?
A: Yes, no team will lose more than 10 percent of its scholarship allotment during any given year, regardless of how many players leave school in poor academic standing. In football, where 85 scholarships are allowed, that means no more than nine scholarships would be lost for one year in a worst-case scenario.
Q: When will this start?
A: University presidents will start receiving notice of penalties in December 2005, after two years' worth of APR data have been compiled (reflecting the 2003-04 and 2004-05 academic years). Scholarship reductions will take effect the following semester. In some cases, teams with small rosters (such as basketball) may get a reprieve during the first two years, when the APR is based on only two-and three-years' worth of data. In time, the APR will be based on a rolling, four-years' worth of data, which will help safeguard smaller teams against been punished for having one or two poor students.
Q: Are there any loopholes?
A: There are plenty, and the history of college sports is rife with examples of devious coaches who are as diligent about skirting NCAA rules as they are about drawing up game plans.
Athletes who struggle in the classroom have a far easier time staying academically eligible when coaches steer them to easy classes and friendly professors with generous grading scales. The final exam given a few years back by Georgia assistant basketball coach Jim Harrick Jr. is a prime example. Among its more difficult multiple-choice questions: How many halves in a basketball game?
Also, the NCAA has the authority to reduce athletic scholarships only. A football team that loses three athletic scholarships can still fill those spots on its roster. While those players can't have an athletic scholarship, they could pay their own tuition, find a benefactor (or booster) who's willing to foot the bill, or even land another sort of scholarship.