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Academic Progress for Football Players: Is the NCAA For Real?

Published:  September 25, 2007

As the college football season kicks into high gear, its hard not to get caught up in or at least be exposed to the insane promotion of big-time college athletics. Many of us watch and read around-the-clock media commentary that glorifies college football players for their on-field accomplishments and generates a religious-like fervor for each weeks game.

As coaches and ESPN commentators go on and on about how much time is put in to preparing for every detail of every match-up, you might ask yourself: do these student-athletes ever get to see the inside of a classroom or library? And if not, is the NCAAwhich produces a lot of rhetoric about its academic reform effortsactually doing anything about it?

Three years ago, the NCAA developed a new "academic progress rate" (APR) metric that aims to ensure athletes spend time on schoolwork, at least enough to stay on track to graduate, and promised penalties to schools with low scores. There are problems with the way that the NCAA calculates academic progress, but it is the most extensiveand the only real-timemeasure of athletes academic performance that has ever come out of the organization.

But the first real test of the NCAAs commitment to academic reform is yet to come. After accumulating data on athletes academic progress for four years, the NCAA is due after this season to take away a whole lot more scholarships, and enact strict punishments for chronic underperformers, Will it follow through with its promise to institute the full range of penalties? And more importantly, will these penalties have an impact?

What is Academic Progress?

The APR is calculated by giving up to two points to each scholarship player on a team. A player receives one point for simply remaining enrolled at the school and one point for remaining academically eligible to play. According to the NCAAs rules, athletes are academically eligible if they complete 20 percent of the courses required for their degree each year and a minimum of six credit hours each semester. Individual schools can choose stricter eligibility rules, such as minimum GPAs.

A teams APR equals the total points earned by scholarship athletes, divided by the total points possible, multiplied by 1,000. The minimum APR for a team to avoid penalties is 925, which translates roughly into a graduation rate of 50 percent. If a teams APR is below 925, it receives "contemporaneous" penalties, which are basically a reduction in the number of scholarships the team can offer the next year. If a teams APR falls below 900 repeatedly, it faces additional "historical" penalties, which can include further scholarship, recruitment, or practice restrictions and eventually loss of Division I membership status.

If you havent picked them out yourself already, there are some not insignificant problems with the APR. First, the bar is set extremely low. A 50 percent graduation rate, no minimum GPA for academic eligibility, and a whole point (half of the total APR score) for just remaining enrolled in school are not very rigorous tests of academic progress. In addition, theres nothing to account for the funneling of athletes into "jock majors" that require little work for inflated grades.

How Are Schools Doing?

Despite these somewhat lax standards, many schools are still struggling to meet the 925 and 900 penalty cut-offs. And after this season, the number of schools subject to penalties is going to skyrocket.

This year, only 12 Division I-A football teams were penalized for their low APR scores. Florida International University lost the most scholarships (nine), while only one team that plays in a Bowl Championship Series conference was penalizedArizona, which lost four scholarships.

But next year the NCAA will stop using a statistical "squad-size" adjustment that has allowed most schools to stay out of danger. The adjustment was intended to cushion the impact of the penalties for schools because of small amounts of databut next year, every school will have a full four years of data and the squad-size adjustment will be phased out.

According to last seasons data, next year approximately 40 percent of college football teams are in danger of losing scholarships. The average APR for football teams last year was only barely above the cut-off at 931.

And next year is also the first year that actual "historical penalties" will kick in for teams with scores below 900. Several football teams have had low scores for consecutive years, such as San Jose State, Temple, and Buffalo.

As you watch USC trounce its PAC-10 opponents, think about how only half of the players on the team are on track to graduate from college (APR=929). And then think about how half of all Division I football teams are doing worse than USC.

But will this poor performance actually matter? Will the penalties hurt schools enough for them to change their ways?

Stay tunedtomorrow we'll give our assessment of the penalties and discuss whether the NCAA will follow through with its academic reform promises.

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