When the NCAA announced scores in late May for its annual measurement of whether college athletes are adhering to minimum academic benchmarks, virtually all high-profile schools were spared. Across all institutions, Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores have improved since the measurement was first released in 2004. But another trend has persisted: the disproportionate penalization of historically black colleges and universities for failing to meet the standard.
Of the 21 athletic teams that will face a postseason ban next season for failing to meet the NCAA’s academic standard during the 2013-14 season, upon which the most recent scores are based, 15 are at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Twenty-five percent of HBCU teams had a single-year APR score below the minimum of 930 during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, compared with 6 percent of teams from non-HBCU institutions in 2012-13 and 4 percent in 2013-14, according to the NCAA’s most recent national and sport-group APR averages and trends.
Some critics of the APR see the gap more as a reflection of the disparity of resources between NCAA member schools than a measure of academic achievement. Many HBCUs face the challenge of serving their core mission of educating poor and academically underserved communities with less funding than more powerful programs to provide academic oversight geared at keeping athletes eligible.
“It really has nothing to do with the quality of education the student is getting,” said Gerald Gurney, president of the Drake Group, an NCAA watchdog, and a former associate athletics director at the University of Oklahoma. “It’s all about how well they play the game, so HBCUs and limited-resource institutions cannot manipulate the APR as big schools.”
Roderick McDavis, president of Ohio University and the current NCAA chair for the Committee on Academics, said of the APR gap: “I won’t say it’s giving me nightmares. I’m very concerned about it.”
McDavis isn’t the first NCAA official to acknowledge concern over HBCU teams’ challenges with maintaining APR standards. Walter Harrison, a former chair of the NCAA Committee on Academic Performance, admitted the issue haunted him at an NCAA academic conference in 2012. The NCAA also gave limited-resource institutions — defined as Division I schools in the bottom 15 percent in funding, expenditures and federal grant aid — an extended transition to meet the minimum standard score.
The APR measure is essentially a percentage of athletes who remain in school and in good academic standing, with teams that fail to meet a four-year average of 930 at risk of NCAA sanctions. The most severe APR penalties can include scholarship reductions, practice restrictions, coach-specific penalties (including game and recruiting restrictions) and potential multiyear bans on postseason competition.
The four teams that face the highest level of penalty for 2015-16 are HBCUs. None of the 65 members of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12 and Southeastern conferences — the semi-autonomous group known as the “power five” — face APR penalties.
Critics of the metric say it isn’t an “accurate measure of a team’s academic success,” as the NCAA Web site touts. Hampton University Athletics Director Eugene Marshall Jr. said he doesn’t think APR is fair because comparing members of the power five with other Division I schools is like “talking about apples and oranges.”
One of the ways schools with financial means can avoid APR trouble is enrolling athletes who did not meet eligibility requirements into summer classes. Athletes who wish to or are encouraged to transfer are often enrolled in summer classes, making them more likely to be academically eligible once they leave the team. By doing so, that team is penalized less under the APR formula, for failing to retain that student, than it would be for that transfer also being ineligible.
HBCUs typically can’t afford for their athletes to attend summer classes. They have far fewer academic advisers to provide oversight. Unlike power conference schools, HBCUs can’t afford enough NCAA compliance officers to effectively navigate waivers for exemptions, or offer guaranteed scholarships that allow athletes who leave school early to return to get their degrees and boost a slumping score.
Though it’s an HBCU, Howard isn’t considered a limited-resource university by the NCAA, so its teams have had to follow the same APR standards as most other Division I programs. The men’s soccer team is facing a second straight postseason ban for a four-year APR score of 917 through the 2013-14 season.
Those postseason bans reflect scores accumulated when Michael Lawrence was the team’s coach but coincide with the program’s first two seasons under Philip Gyau, who replaced Lawrence before the 2014 season.
Gyau did not respond to several requests to comment.
Shelley Davis, Howard’s interim athletics director, said “it’s unfortunate” that a high percentage of HBCUs are penalized for their teams’ APR.
“I don’t necessarily think that the APR reports that are released annually necessarily reflect the commitment HBCUs have to educating students,” Davis said. “I do think it may boil down to having access to some of those resources that other schools may have access to.”
Howard has two full-time academic advisers for approximately 350 athletes. At Morgan State, the only academic adviser listed on the athletic department’s online staff directory is also an assistant cheerleading coach. But schools in the power five conferences often have an academic counselor devoted to football and men’s basketball and one for every three to four of the institution’s other sports.
“You can see the haves and have nots,” said Carray Banks Jr., a faculty athletics representative at Norfolk State. “It’s very clear. When you have more people, you have the ability to provide more oversight and you have the ability to provide more intrusive supervising and monitoring of their attendance to class.”
Part of the HBCU mission is to educate the poorest and least academically prepared, so most of those institutions admit more first-generation college students. Banks said HBCUs with less selective enrollment routinely deal with students, both athletes and non-athletes, who struggle to adapt to a more rigorous academic environment or leave the school for personal reasons.
For the fall of 2013, the first- to second-year retention rates of first-time undergraduates enrolled full time ranged from 72 to 75 percent among all students at Hampton, Morgan State and Norfolk State. Virginia, Maryland and Virginia Tech had retention rates higher than 90 percent.
McDavis, the NCAA academic committee chairman, suggested HBCUs and other limited-resource programs “take a close look at the types of students being admitted to play intercollegiate athletics. . . . If you’re going to be in the NCAA and you’re going to participate in intercollegiate athletics, you have to meet the 930 standard.”
Marshall, Hampton’s athletics director, argued that athletic scholarships at more selective institutions, like some in the power five conferences, are often extended to students who likely would not otherwise be admitted.
“To me, it would be unconstitutional if the historically black colleges and universities were held to a different standard than the predominantly white colleges because all of those student-athletes in those big five conferences, they all don’t walk into the front door academically sound and ready to be successful,” Marshall said. “They’re given a chance.”
The NCAA has provided some financial support to limited-resource institutions, as schools can apply for a grant through the Accelerating Academic Success Program, which has allocated $7.4 million to assisting underfunded institutions. The comprehensive grants are for a maximum of $300,000 per year for three years, while single-year grants go up to $100,000.
Gurney said that the grant money is often “too little and too late,” especially while considering the windfall power-five schools receive from conference television deals, bowl games and NCAA tournament appearances compared to those in less profitable conferences. The SEC, for example, announced a record average payout of $20.9 million per school in 2013-14, and ACC schools received a nearly identical amount, according to ESPN.
“Why is it that only the rich schools can successfully navigate the APR game?” Gurney said. “Something is definitely amiss here.”