Keeping score of academic performance for student athletes

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Each March, when college basketball fans turn their attention to the Final Four, which will be next weekend in Houston, reformers attempt instead to focus that attention on academics.

This year, that voice of reform belongs to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who wrote in an editorial for The Washington Post earlier this month that coaches should “worry not just about getting athletes in a uniform — but also about getting them in a cap and gown.” Duncan cited statistics from the NCAA indicating that 10 of this year’s 68 tournament teams are not on track to graduate at least half of their players.

It’s a familiar refrain that surprises no fan of college athletics. Team X’s players can’t stay eligible. Coach Y doesn’t graduate his players. But now those reformers are hoping to incentivize college athletics in an effort to retain the primacy of academics above athletics, of the word “student” before “athlete.”

Specifically, Duncan has declared his support for the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics’ call to prohibit teams from participating in the NCAA tournament who graduate fewer than half of their players. It’s a penalty with teeth considering that 43.7 percent of the revenue earned by teams in the tournament in the last five years fall into that category. That’s more than $178 million, $8.5 million of which was earned by Texas.

While the Knight Commission’s recommendations certainly seem reasonable, in reality they are predicated upon faulty metrics created by the NCAA and the result could be to the detriment of college athletics and the universities that support them.

To blame is the Academic Progress Rate (APR), a metric created by the NCAA in 2005 to supplement Graduation Success Rate (GSR) in order to provide a “real-time snapshot” of a team’s academic performance at a given time.

Unlike GSR, APR works through a contrived point system. Each scholarship athlete on a team is awarded up to two points each semester, one for being academically eligible and one for staying with the institution. Each year, the points earned are divided over the total possible points and multiplied by 1,000 for ease of reference. The NCAA then averages the scores for the last four years to provide a multiyear APR score that is the one circulated in the media. Scores can range from 0 to 1,000.

Through a series of statistical analyses that have not been divulged publicly, the NCAA has determined that a score of 925 is equivalent to a 50-percent graduation rate. So when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says that 10 teams in the tournament are not on pace to graduate half their players, what he really means is that 10 teams had APR scores of less than 925. And lest you believe the NCAA that APR provides a real-time measure, remember that it’s a four-year average whose most recent numbers are already two years old.

Texas’ score is a perfect 1000. If the tournament had been reseeded by APR, the Longhorns would have been a one seed along with Michigan State, Butler and Kansas.

But before you pat yourself on the back, consider that Texas’ GSR, which actually does report the percentage of athletes that graduate from an institution, is abysmal. It’s 42 percent overall and just 17 percent for African American players, fourth worst of any team in the tournament. If we reseed the tournament based on GSR, Texas becomes a 15 seed.

So if it’s possible for Texas to have an APR that is the polar opposite of its GSR, how can this metric be used to determine eligibility for the tournament? Clearly, the APR is flawed and should be replaced with more accurate measures.

In the meanwhile, schools are receiving penalties for low APRs. One of the most high-profile cases involved Ohio State, which lost two scholarships last season in part because of the previous decisions of Greg Oden and Kosta Koufos to withdraw from classes and declare for the NBA draft.

“The math on this is not complicated,” Duncan said in a story to the USA Today. “If you can’t graduate one in two of your student-athletes, I just question the institutional commitment to academics.”

But the math is complicated, and the margin for error is extremely slim. Schools such as Texas depend on the success of athletics to build a stronger brand for the university, and that benefits all students. Setting academic expectations for athletics is right, but we’re going about it the wrong way.

<em>Curl is an advertising graduate student.<em>