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Higher Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Higher Education Initiative

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College Sports Reform: Putting More Focus on Academics

Published:  July 23, 2008

It is a sad reality that many colleges do not treat their athletes as students, but rather as semi-professionals, for four years before dropping them into the real world without a meaningful degree or workforce-ready skills. Particularly at Division I basketball and football schools, colleges use their athletes to win championships and gain national prominence but too often leave them woefully unprepared for life away from the gridiron and hoops.

As I argued last week, the commercialization of college sports has gone too far. In this post, I will lay out the steps that I believe the NCAA and Congress should take to make sure that colleges aren’t allowed to lose touch with what really matters in higher education: graduating students with meaningful degrees.The first step toward reforming college sports is requiring greater transparency about the academic outcomes of athletes. Without better information, neither the NCAA nor Congress will be able to isolate and target academic abuses. The NCAA must also step up to the plate and fix flaws with its current academic monitoring and penalty system, as well as with its eligibility rules.

Providing Transparency Beyond Graduation Rates

At present, Congress requires only that colleges submit annual reports on the six-year graduation rates of their scholarship student-athletes disaggregated by team and race. The NCAA has its own "Graduation Success Rate" measure, which doesn’t count athletes who transfer or leave school early against the colleges, as the federal rate does.

Unfortunately, none of this graduation rate data gives any indication of an athlete's actual academic experience. The existence of jock majors (those with minimal requirements and easy classes), grade inflation, and inappropriate "tutoring" help are far too common. While some of these under-the-radar behaviors are impossible to track, the NCAA or Congress can ask for more detailed academic information from colleges that would reveal systemic abuses.

While the NCAA should provide better transparency without federal intervention, its record and reluctance to expose individual member schools to any scrutiny means such oversight is likely to fall to Congress. This is exactly what happened with graduation rates and the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act in the early 1990s. With that in mind, the following proposals can either be carried out voluntarily by the NCAA or mandated by Congress:

Recommendation: Require colleges to report the courses and majors selected by athletes, and the average GPA within each course and major. Also, require colleges to report on any tutoring help athletes receive.

Recommendation: Establish a new NCAA committee to monitor jock majors and the clustering of athletes.

  • This NCAA committee would be tasked with using the newly collected course and major data to learn more about the actual classroom experience of athletes at different schools. It could investigate any outliers -- such as majors with a disproportionate number of athletes or with higher than average GPAs. Schools would be required to submit more information on outliers and an explanation for any clustering or grade inflation that is discovered.

Improving Monitoring and Accountability

In 2004, the NCAA adopted several new academic reforms, for which the organization deserves credit. The centerpiece of these reforms was the "Academic Progress Rate" (APR), a real-time indicator of how athletes on each team are progressing toward a degree. Teams get points each semester for retaining athletes and for keeping them academically eligible. Most importantly, the NCAA implemented a system of penalties for teams that post low APRs. The introduction of the APR was an important step under Myles Brand, the current NCAA president who took over in 2002. Before Brand’s hiring, there was little examination and almost no organization-wide regulation of athletes' academic records.

Unfortunately, the APR and the accompanying penalties are not strong enough to influence the behavior of most athletic programs. The APR only tracks two things: 1) whether an athlete returns to school each semester and 2) whether an athlete completes 20 percent of the required courses for a specific degree each year. There is no minimum GPA, and there is no consideration of class rigor. In addition, the APR’s rigidity basically forces athletes to stay on the same degree track, which means that athletic programs often push them into the easiest majors as freshmen.

It is also easy for schools -- particularly those with profitable sports teams and thus money and resources -- to find ways to get their athletic programs into compliance without actually ensuring that students receive a quality education. Moreover, schools with low APRs are only penalized with scholarship reductions if players on a certain team are "0-for-2," meaning they leave school early and are also academically ineligible. There is no penalty for "1-for-2" players -- those that transfer, go pro, or exhaust their four years of eligibility but still don't graduate.

There’s also a question of enforcement. Even when some of the big-time sports teams posted low APRs last year, the NCAA let them off the hook. The association granted numerous penalty waivers without sticking to any consistent standards. The NCAA said most of the waivers are contingent upon the schools meeting "APR Improvement Plans." I'm skeptical that the organization will make an example of any high-profile school, but consistent penalties are the only way that the APR will become a meaningful standard.

Recommendation: Strengthen the APR and its penalties.

  • Require a minimum GPA for academic eligibility, in addition to completing 20 percent of required degree courses each year.
  • Allow athletes to switch between majors even if they don't meet the annual 20 percent mark if they can produce a course plan that allows them to graduate within five years.
  • Provide waivers for only low-resource institutions, and grant none for "APR Improvement Plans."
  • Establish penalties for "1-for-2" players that leave school after exhausting four years of athletic eligibility but do not graduate.

Keeping the Focus on Academics

In addition to setting new academic standards and penalties, the NCAA should consider how other policies take college athletes' focus away from academics. One prime example is the strategic use of "red-shirting," a policy which promotes professional athletic behavior (as opposed to academic, student-focused behavior) on college sports teams.

The NCAA gives all college athletes a five-year window to exhaust their four years of eligibility to compete in a sport. When players decide to take one year off, they are called "red-shirts." In concept, the practice of red-shirting for individual needs makes sense; if athletes get injured, or have academic or personal problems, they don't lose a year of playing time.

But in practice, red-shirting has become a widespread strategic tool, particularly in college football. Instead of using the red-shirt year to deal with the individual circumstances of a few players, football teams use it to bulk up most of their players and gain a competitive advantage. This takes the focus away from the athlete and places it on the needs of the team. Once red-shirted players reach their fifth year in school, many don't need to take a full course load or participate in academic life, which means they can devote themselves entirely to the team, acting like semi-professional players

.Recommendation: End strategic red-shirting.

  • Only allow red-shirting for injuries or personal reasons. Require players to submit red-shirt waivers that justify their need to take a year off and extend eligibility.

When Congress first required schools to publicly report the graduation rates of their athletes in 1994, it created a stir that forced colleges and the NCAA to start thinking about the academic performance of athletes. While athletic programs have made progress on graduation rates, we need more academic information to truly understand what is going on behind the veil of big-time college sports.Tune in next week for how more transparency in athletic spending can provide further sunshine and force a realignment of priorities in college athletics programs.

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