Being in the Ivy League is sweet.
At least that’s the only conclusion one can make after last week’s announcement that Penn’s student-athletes have one of the country’s best records in the annual NCAA Academic Progress Rate for enrollment from the 2007-08 through 2010-11 academic years. 17 Quaker teams were recognized for APR scores among the top 10 percent nationally in their sport.
The APR is a method started in 2004 to help student-athletes graduate with meaningful degrees preparing them for life.
But it hasn’t done that.
According to a recent study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, more than a dozen schools haven’t graduated at least half of their players in recent years. UConn graduates just 25 percent of its players, Florida graduates 38 percent and Michigan graduates 45 percent. And those figures don’t even include star players who leave school early.
The APR makes it possible for students to be eligible for multiple seasons with academic achievement levels that don’t prepare them to graduate. Students may complete as few as two courses in a semester and maintain an average GPA as low as 2.0 after their junior and senior years.
Besides, schools don’t have to fear low APR scores anyway. Out of 327 Division I basketball teams, 72 failed to meet an APR of 925 that would represent a 50-percent six-year graduation success rate, according to last year’s study by the NCAA’s Committee on Academic Performance. Yet almost no penalties were handed out.
For the 2008-09 season, the Syracuse basketball team fell 18 points below the minimum APR of 930 and was hit accordingly with two scholarship reductions. Three players had left mid-semester to pursue pro careers, resulting in the low score. The Orange rebounded with back-to-back perfect APRs in the next two seasons. Yet their low score from 2008-09 stays with them for four years, keeping them at risk for a postseason ban.
Kentucky’s men’s basketball team has met the NCAA’s APR requirements despite having 12 undergraduates over three seasons bail for the NBA. Apparently taking eight college credits constitutes a college education for “student-athletes.”
No wonder Gerald Gurney, former president of the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics, calls the APR “manufactured.”
So if the APR doesn’t accurately measure the quality of a college education, what does it do?
It encourages more academic fraud than the NCAA would ever care to know about.
North Carolina was ultimately put on three-year probation and a one-year postseason ban after an investigation revealed unauthorized grade changes and possible forgery of professors’ signatures on grade rolls. At Florida State, professors gave students answers to online exams and typed material for them, resulting in the loss of scholarships for 10 Seminole teams and four-year probation. In 2006, Kansas received three years’ probation for multiple violations that included a former graduate assistant football coach who gave two prospective athletes answers to test questions for correspondence courses they were taking at the college.
Although academic fraud obstructs the education of student-athletes, it keeps the money rolling in for the NCAA’s power programs.
In 2010, the SEC alone topped $1 billion in athletic receipts, with the other major athletic conferences earning hundreds of millions as well. The football teams at Florida, Texas, Michigan and Penn State each earn between $40 million and $80 million in profits a year, even after paying coaches multimillion dollar contracts.
With financial stakes this high, athletics easily comes before academics. Rule-breaking isn’t confined to a few “trouble schools.”
Fifteen of the 64 major cases involving Bowl Subdivision universities from 2001 to 2010 pertained to academic fraud or other academic violations involving enrolled athletes, up from eight from 1991 to 2000.
Instead, rule-breaking is the only recourse for colleges who need to keep their stars eligible for one more extra spring semester thanks in part due to the APR, a measure that has shifted the focus from education to eligibility and retention. Unfortunately, the silver spoons in the mouths of athletic powerhouses have left them without any teeth, and with such a lax academic landscape, it’s only a matter of time until the NCAA is easier to pass than the phantom classes and exams it occasionally cracks down on.
And yet for all of the APR’s shortcomings, Penn’s latest APR achievements couldn’t be more significant, if only because they accentuate that Penn and fellow Ivies are above the classroom fray. I’ve asked at least two dozen Quaker athletes during interviews why they chose Penn. (Remember that essay?)
While many of them mentioned recruiting and familial connections, all of them said academics was the number one factor in choosing Penn. Sure, it’s an easy answer, but after talking with many of them face-to-face about their studies, I believe them. We really do have student-athletes.
So does everywhere else, but it’s a shame that they do in spite of the APR.