On April 19, 2004, the NCAA Division I Management Council adopted Proposal 2003–112. That proposal had the following intent:
To establish a program, with appropriate measurements of academic performance, that rewards those institutions and teams that demonstrate commitment toward the academic progress, retention and graduation of student-athletes and penalizes those that fail to demonstrate such commitment.
The rest of that proposal ushered in a number of changes to the NCAA’s academic rules but none more significant than the Academic Progress Rate (APR). The APR is the most significant academic reform the NCAA has made since Prop 48 and the target of much of the criticism of the NCAA’s approach to academic progress and reform. The biggest is baked right into the APR from the intent of the proposal that created it. The APR has always been about “academic progress”, “retention”, and “graduation”; education is missing.
Despite the limitations, it is impossible to call the APR anything but a qualified success. If nothing else, the APR made academics in college athletics a public issue. Sports writers, boosters, coaches, and athletic directors now have an measure of academic performance that is much closer to real-time than graduation rates. For better or worse, the APR became the language of academic reform, a language simple enough for just about anyone to understand, not just compliance professionals or academic advisors.
In 2004 the APR was revolutionary but it suffered from all the problems of a Version 1.0. While the APR has not be stagnant the last 10 years, it has not changed that much either. Penalty thresholds have moved moved, adjustments have been added, and sanctions have changed. But to stretch the software analogy, these are all point updates. The APR is at maybe version 1.5, when it is was time for version 2.0 a few years ago.
The best place to start looking for features in the next version of the APR is to look at where the APR failed over the years:
- The APR did not change which prospects coaches recruited. To the extent it did, those changes were small relative to how much institutions twisted themselves to continue admiting the same prospects while posting acceptable APR scores. Or how the APR was softened over the years, especially on the retention side.
- The current APR can only boost the quantity of degrees athletes receive rather than both the quantity and quality of degrees. A 100% graduation rate is a less meaningful goal if many of those degrees do not provide students with better job prospects and more earning power.
- By attaching real and increasingly severe consequences to a poor APR score, the measure gives more incentive to take shortcuts or commit outright academic fraud. The simplicity of the APR prevents it from taking these tricks into account.
- As with initial eligibility, the setting of a national, one-size-fits-all standard allows institutions to skip the introspection about what acceptable academic performance means on their individual campuses.
To address these issues, the best inspiration for the NCAA is to look at the data and tools it has acquired and created since the APR was introduced. The Eligibility Center and Academic Performance Program reporting has given the NCAA a wealth of detailed data about the academic preparation and progress of student-athletes. Tools like the Graduation Risk Overview (GRO) go beyond transcripts and test scores to get at the factors behind academic success or failure of individual athletes. The new Institutional Performance Program will give the NCAA more data about institutional differences than the once-a-decade certification program could.
A new version of the APR should do a better job of treating different student-athletes and different institutions differently. The biggest question is how. Should an institution which brings in large numbers of at-risk student-athletes be punished if it fails to graduate them or given a pass because of the difficulty of the task? Should more resources poured into academic support for athletes be a plus (i.e. “at least you tried hard”) or a minus (“you should have done better”)? Should historical success at graduating athletes give an institution breathing room or give it a higher target? How should clustering be tracked and accounted for?
Like many version 1.0 products, version 2.0 requires a major rethinking of how it was out together rather than just adding new features. The APR is no exception to this trend. The APR needs more than stiffer penalties or new adjustments. It needs to be torn down, every piece looked at, weakness addressed, strengths enhanced, and put back together as something that can work for the next ten years.