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NCAA’s Discriminatory APR Scores

A few weeks ago, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) released their annual Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores for each Division I team. While the annual announcement of these scores typically generates headlines that APR scores are improving, these headlines are disturbingly misleading. Without fail, each year historically Black colleges & universities (HBCUs) and other low-resourced schools are the primary recipients of low APR scores and are disproportionately penalized. With the latest release of APR scores, 75 percent of the penalized teams with low APR scores are HBCU teams. While the NCAA may have had good intentions when it established the APR metric 15 years ago, the standard is discriminatory because it rewards student athletes at wealthy colleges and universities and punishes those at less wealthy schools.

Dr. Monique O. OsiteluDr. Monique O. Ositelu

The discriminatory effects of APR scores are obvious when looking at the distribution of penalties. The NCAA penalizes teams with low APR scores by reducing the number of athletic scholarships available to their athletes, banning teams from participating in post-season competition, reducing the amount of days and hours teams can practice, reducing the competition season to fewer in-season games, suspending coaches and potentially stripping teams of their NCAA membership status for the upcoming academic year. Although low-scoring teams can receive waivers and adjustments to avoid these penalties, I found, while writing a dissertation on the topic, statistical significance showing that when HBCU teams and non-HBCU teams have comparably low APR scores, HBCU teams are far more likely to receive a penalty.

Instead of reporting breathlessly on the “increased” APR scores that are masked by the high scores of major athletic programs, journalists should focus on the following question: Why does the NCAA continue to use this unfair penalty-driven metric to determine athletes’ academic progress, when it disproportionately penalizes athletes attending HBCUs and other low-resourced institutions?

APR is a multi-year metric based on the cumulative academic progress of athletes from the previous four years. The metric is calculated using a point-based system that monitors whether student athletes continue to enroll at the same institution and whether they continue to progress towards a degree. However, APR monitors only student athletes who receive athletic scholarships.

The NCAA prides itself on APR serving as a “real-time” metric. But that simply is not true. The APR metric uses data from the previous four years to determine current academic progress. As a result, the metric uses the outcomes of former athletes to potentially penalize incoming freshmen who are undeserving of the penalty.

Compounding the discriminatory effects, the metric is easily manipulated, especially by wealthy institutions that have large financial aid budgets. Because the metric monitors the academic progress of only athletes receiving athletic scholarships, universities with large endowments can easily get around that stipulation.

Wealthy institutions with generous endowments, and an overflowing amount of financial support from their booster clubs, can provide institutional scholarships, rather than athletic ones, to exceptional athletes who are academically at-risk. By intentionally omitting athletes who are struggling academically from team APR calculations, they can artificially increase their teams’ APR scores and create a false sense of academic progress.

However, colleges and universities with small endowments, such as HBCUs, can’t play this game. These institutions don’t have the financial flexibility to selectively distribute athletic-aid based on whether athletes will raise or lower their teams’ APR scores. While wealthy institutions can afford to buy their way around the APR metric to avoid penalties and the accompanied public scrutiny attached with low APR scores, low-resourced institutions are stuck taking the brunt of the metric.

The NCAA has taken some steps to help low-resourced institutions raise their APR scores with monetary grants. But these efforts should not obscure the fact that the easily-manipulated metric does not provide an accurate snapshot of student athletes’ actual academic progress.

The NCAA needs to retire the APR metric and instead use accountability tools that level the playing field between rich and low-resourced colleges and universities. I believe the NCAA should consider a combination of academic indicators to systematically improve student athletes’ learning and graduation rates.

Research has shown that campus engagement and retention are positively correlated, especially for college students with lower academic outcomes. Therefore, the NCAA should take a more holistic approach and consider the indicators of retention, progress towards a degree, campus engagement and integration into academic inclusive activities such as faculty interactions. The NCAA should examine these indicators intermittently throughout the year to implement corrective actions in real-time to improve athletes’ academic progress. With APR’s laser-like focus on improving graduation rates, the NCAA turns a blind eye to the complex experiences happening between recruitment and graduation – leaving the most vulnerable student athletes who are academically at-risk in the margins.

It is imperative to hold schools accountable and to acknowledge collegiate athletes as students – but with student-centered metrics. In order for athletes to successfully graduate, it is important for them to be fully engaged and integrated with their studies and their campuses. It is critical that the metrics monitoring these student athletes’ academic outcomes reflect this holistic approach to accurately predict and improve academic progress in real-time but not at the expense of athletes attending low-resourced institutions.

Dr. Monique O. Ositelu is a senior policy analyst of higher education with New America’s Education Policy Program.

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