The NCAA's APR metric purportedly measures how well college athletes are performing in the classroom, but a closer look reveals more questions than answers.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Last week, the National Collegiate Athletic Association released its annual Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores, commencing a nationwide circle-jerk of college athletic departments bragging about what good students their athletes are.
Problem is, the APR arguably doesn't do much to measure actual learning. Instead, it appears to prioritize athletic eligibility, not education, and in doing so it inarguably ends up punishing athletes at poorer schools, particularly America's historically black colleges and universities.
Let's start with the metric itself. Given its name, you might assume that the NCAA-created APR measures academic achievement, plain and simple. In reality, it's not that straightforward. The two components that go into calculating APR are:
1. How many athletes are eligible to compete in sports
2. How many athletes stay for the second semester in any given year
Essentially, if you merely exist as a student, and don't leave in the middle of a school year, you count toward a perfect APR score! That's how the University of Kentucky men's basketball team, a revolving door of players on their way to the NBA, received its perfect APR score this year.
"Your academic progress rate is designed to tell the consuming public that everything is fine," said Richard Southall, a professor at the University of South Carolina and the director of the College Sport Research Institute. "The athletes are graduating toward success and they're making progress toward that degree."
Are they? The APR doesn't actually tell us that. What it tells us is that athletes are remaining eligible to play college sports, which arguably is an insufficient proxy for receiving a legitimate education.
Eligibility requires meeting relatively low benchmarks: completing 40 percent of the requirements for a particular degree by the end of an athlete's second year; 60 percent by year three; and 80 percent by year four; plus whatever minimum GPA requirements each school has. Of course, all of that is purportedly related to education—passing courses is supposed to indicate that you've learned something.
But not always.
In the broader academic world, standardized testing—like the kind pushed by President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation—is used as a classroom performance benchmark, a way to measure progress. When schools raise their scores, they're rewarded; when they don't, they're punished. In theory, this is supposed to incentivize greater learning; in practice, it often results in gaming the system and teaching to the test—that is, teaching students how to answer exam-style math problems, as opposed to how to think about math. It also can result in blatant cheating.
The APR can function in a similar way. Good scores mean bragging opportunities; bad scores can result in postseason bans. It just exacerbates a climate in which academic integrity can take a back seat to keeping athletes eligible and on the field. Take the scandal at the University of North Carolina: from 1993 to 2011, the university allowed athletes to take fake classes in an effort to keep them eligible. It also "clustered" them into the same easy majors. Athletes graduated, sure, but they didn't have meaningful academic experiences. Former UNC learning specialist Mary Willingham told VICE Sports that it was "impossible for them to get a real education."
What good is a degree when you didn't actually learn anything, and when you can't use it toward commensurate employment?
"The guys I worked with are power-washing houses, they're working odd state jobs, they're working third shifts at Targets," Willingham said. "They're not using their degrees anyways because we didn't teach them what that degree can really get you."
The NCAA has claimed in court that it is not responsible for governing the quality of education that athletes receive, which might explain why it uses something as incomplete as the APR. However, the association's also does plenty of policing and nosing around into the educational quality of high school sports recruits, going so far as to keep an athlete ineligible until it can carefully review the ins-and-outs of his sixth grade school work in Mali.
"The NCAA has no reservations about looking very carefully at the academic transcripts of high school athletes, and also aggressively at times, going right to looking at homework, looking at course materials, speaking with teachers to assess whether or not that high school diploma is reflective of education standards that would warrant the issuance of the diploma," said Ellen Staurowsky, a Drexel University sports management professor who has done extensive research on the NCAA, and is a frequent critic of the organization. "And yet this is the same organization that (said) that they had no capacity to do that in terms of college courses. That it was not their place to intercede in their member institutions' issuing of graduations and diplomas."
If you assume the NCAA is motivated by education, this gap is perplexing. If you assume, however, that the association is instead motivated by public relations—by inflating public perception that the major revenue-producing programs in college sports are focused on academics, which conveniently helps its arguments that athletes should not be paid and college sports should not be taxed—then it makes perfect sense.
The NCAA notes that the APR was created as "a more timely assessment of academic success." Need to rebuff the idea that colleges aren't really educating athletes? Give schools a quick-fix way to do it. The NCAA began collecting data for APR in the 2003-04 academic year. In 2009—the year the most offending professor in UNC's "paper classes" scandal retired—the men's basketball team had an exemplary APR score of 995 (out of 1,000). There are examples of this everywhere in college sports. Arguably, the APR is working exactly as it was intended.
"I think it is part of the media strategy to present a narrative to the public that whatever concerns may be expressed are either isolated or minor, or they don't really amount to much," Staurowsky said. "In absence of really full disclosure, we don't have an opportunity to look under the hood to really see what's going on."
Not every school is able to take advantage of the APR's weaknesses, however, and one category of schools in particular is getting punished: historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUS, many of which already face a crisis of declining enrollment and funding.
Every single one of the 23 teams hit with postseason bans for low APR scores this year belongs to an HBCU. There were eight affected schools in all, two of which are among the 10 poorest schools in Division I, according to USA Today; not one of the schools earned more than $14.5 million in revenue in 2015. (For reference, no power conference school brought in less than $50 million, and at least 24 brought in more than $100 million.)
Rich schools aren't necessarily giving athletes better educations, but they're able to put up the money for massive eligibility factories, with pristine facilities and an endless supply of tutors who can help athletes do their work and ensure they stay eligible. Some schools even have specialized minders walk revenue-sport athletes to class.
By contrast, HBCUs—many of which face declining enrollment, budget cuts, and even closure—often only have one or two academic support staff members for all of their teams.
"It really comes down to a resource issue," said Fritz Polite, the director of sport management at Shenandoah University. "It's not rocket science to me. If you look at the academic resource centers that are going up in this arms race ... they're using (academic resources) as a recruiting tool to bring athletes to campus. HBCUs don't have that leisure, they don't have those resources. And then (the NCAA) put a system in place that affects those resources."
The NCAA can plainly see that the APR disproportionately hurts HBCUs and their athletes, yet keeps it regardless. Fritz and a number of other members of the academic and athletic community wrote a joint letter to the NCAA in 2012, urging them to make changes to the APR process.
"They created this committee that asked us for our recommendations, and our recommendations were that unless the HBCUs received extra money to support academic resource centers, how do you expect the HBCUs to compete academically (with power five schools) without that?" Fritz said. "They didn't take any of our recommendations and they never invited us back.
"The NCAA never has to give a reason. They just do what they want to do."
The NCAA has made a few concessions to HBCUs, including granting them an amended timeline to meet new APR standards. The association claims that it has provided HBCUs with unspecified "financial assistance" to help them academically. It will also begin an unspecified "initiative" to help HBCUs.
Until those vague promises produce concrete results, it's not unreasonable to conclude that the NCAA doesn't particularly care about its HBCUs. Nothing personal: it's just that smaller, poorer schools without massive sports television audiences don't affect the bottom line.
"The American consuming public are not interested in the HBCUs," Southall said. "The APR is doing what it was designed to do. It's deflecting criticism."
Money, not education, is the driving factor behind everything in college athletics. Schools that have it are able to play the NCAA's APR game. Schools that don't are at risk of falling even further behind.