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By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
The 2011 release of Academic Progress Rate data revealed that Historically Black Colleges and Universities continue to struggle with the academic metric that measures the eligibility and retention of student-athletes at a team level. Where many non-HBCU peers – including schools with similarly limited resources – show some improvement, teams at HBCUs are trending in the opposite direction.
For the 2009-10 APR reporting year (the data released today), 33 of the 103 penalties went to teams at historically black institutions.
HBCU advocates say the reasons for the downward movement are complex and extend beyond a lack of resources, though that factor is cited most often as a reason for poor academic performance. Where many institutions with more funding can hire academic advisors, tutors and other people to ensure their student-athletes go to class, many HBCUs just don’t have that kind of cash on hand.
The financial issues extend beyond the obvious lack of money to pay for academic “extras.” Some teams have to actually go out and make money for their cash-strapped athletics departments. Teams in high-profile sports like basketball and football often have to play big-money guarantee games to bring more funding to their athletics department. Those guarantee games could keep a men’s basketball team on the road (and out of the classroom) for much of its pre-conference schedule.
George Wright, president at Prairie View A&M, has a unique perspective on the issue. Wright spent most of his professional career as a professor and administrator at Texas and Duke before assuming the presidency at Prairie View A&M eight years ago. When he taught an 8 a.m. history class at Texas, many student-athletes found the class favorable to their schedules, and the athletics department would ensure the student-athletes made it to class.
“We’re talking about resources. Prairie View can’t do that,” Wright said. “I have often speculated about Vince Young, who went to Texas from an inner-city Houston high school. If a kid with the same academic profile as Vince Young went to Prairie View while Vince Young goes to Texas, Vince Young would do better over time because of the resources they can provide.
“Every administrator here at Prairie View has two jobs. That’s part of the problem. Yet, if you look at our graduation rates, our athletes graduate at a higher rate than our other students do. But we often come out of this with a lower APR. We come across as seeming to not do so well with our athletes in the academic sphere.”
Wright pointed out that Prairie View’s mission differs from that of other, top-funded institutions, even within his own state.
“The mission of the University of Texas at Austin is to admit only the top percentage of students in the state of Texas,” Wright said. “Prairie View is supposed to admit the best students, but also give some folks a second chance, and in some cases a first chance to attend college. That mission is important. We’re not going to have the same retention rate as Texas. I think the NCAA has got to understand the uniqueness of the HBCU and address that.”
The dichotomy Wright illustrates - student-athletes at HBCUs and other institutions who perform better than the general student body yet still fail to make the NCAA’s APR benchmarks – is accounted for in the Academic Performance Program. The program has a penalty filter for “institutional mission,” which essentially means that if the team is performing better academically than the general student body at the institution (as measured by federal graduation rate, the only comparison available), they can receive some relief from APR penalties.
However, their raw numbers still put them below other, similarly resourced schools.
Another factor often cited by HBCU officials is turnover, both within the athletics department and at the presidential level.
Duer Sharp, commissioner of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, said turnover leads to lower APRs at institutions like those in his conference. When a consistent commitment to academics from every level is absent, little change results. When the presidential commitment is absent, change is even more difficult, he said.
“All change really comes from the top. 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,” Sharp said. “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.”
Floyd Kerr, athletics director at Morgan State, said presidential leadership is “critical” to the broad-based, campus-wide move toward APR improvement at his university. David Wilson took over the presidency at Morgan State last summer and immediately visited with several teams, including the ones that have struggled academically, to assure student-athletes that the commitment to academics was real. Wilson told the student-athletes that he wants to measure success by degrees attained as well as championships won.
“We have three layers of support and three layers of accountability there (with the coach, the athletics department and the president),” Kerr said. “That’s three different levels to impress upon our young athletes that academics are important. We are serious about it, and you will be serious about. We will walk through this with you. You won’t be alone … They get the message.”
Bernard Franklin, NCAA executive vice president, said that in his discussions with HBCU presidents, lack of resources is the most-often cited factor for the lack of improvement.
“The turnover rate both at the presidential and athletics department level is another contributing factor,” he 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.”
Franklin pointed to the Supplemental Support Fund, a pool of money the NCAA set aside to assist low-resource institutions with funding academic needs, and the HBCU Advisory Group composed of presidents and chancellors that serves as a forum for sharing best practices, as two efforts the NCAA has made to assist HBCUs improve academically.
Prairie View’s Wright, a member of the advisory group, said he values the forum.
“I appreciate the opportunity the NCAA provides for us to talk about things and be better educated,” he said. “There are times when, if you are at a Prairie View or another small school, you might be provincial in your thinking and believe that the world is unfair to you. You need to look at it from another viewpoint. You both need to see each others’ view of the world.”
Franklin also noted that while the Committee on Academic Performance is sensitive to the challenges HBCUs and other limited-resource institutions face, the penalty structure is applicable to all Division I member institutions and penalties earned through the structure must be taken seriously.
The Committee on Academic Performance is in the process of reviewing the Academic Performance Program, with everything from the penalty structure to the benchmarks to the filters undergoing scrutiny. Sharp, whose term on the committee expires this year, said he hopes the remaining members keep in mind the “unique mission” of HBCUs when considering what changes to make and how HBCUs might be affected.
“We’ve been educating first-generation college attendees. 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,” Sharp said. “That’s all I want the committee to understand.”