Explosive question, that.
NCAA honchos like the late Myles Brand, who oversaw the implementation of the Academic Progress Rate system, and current president Mark Emmert, would say that it’s had a dramatic impact on the measurement of whether universities are really doing their jobs in educating student-athletes.
I might counter with this: To a point.
Below are the annual four-year averages of each Pac-12 school the NCAA released Wednesday, from the 2004-05 school year through 2010-11. Most of them are striking in one aspect: The numbers at the start of the period are generally lower than at the end of this seven-year cycle. Or, to say it another way, their last four-year average puts most schools in better shape than they were at some earlier stage in the cycle.
Arizona State 926-933-945-945-930-937
Oregon State 910-913-926-930-947-959-955
Washington St. 935-930-916-918-918-925-933
Did Pac-12 football players become a lot smarter in that period? Or did their schools just become better at working the system?
The APR measures academic performance and retention. As a metric for making coaches more earnest about whom they’re recruiting — and ensuring that they need to be invested in that athlete’s development, both on the field and in the classroom — the APR is no doubt useful.
But there are flaws. The father of a former Washington football player wrote me recently, decrying the practice of athletes being funneled into easier majors than they might otherwise gravitate toward, so they can remain functioning football players. If it happens at Washington, I’m sure it happens at other schools.
That’s a possible outgrowth of the APR system. Yes, there’s an obvious benefit to staying in school and graduating, but if it inhibits an athlete’s inclination to pursue another major, it may not be the optimum outcome. Especially in today’s economy, where jobs are scarce even for college graduates, the field of study that’s esoteric and ill-defined may not point the student-athlete to a job when he completes the curriculum.
There’s also this: An athlete who may have decided to transfer could be dissuaded from doing so by a school that denies him a release until he graduates, thus saving it from being docked by the APR. Sure, there’s a benefit to him obtaining the degree, but it also might be of help to him if he can leave, say, for spring football practice at school B and get the degree there.
I remember when Idaho was hit hard by the APR — I believe in 2008, the same year Washington State was nailed for scholarships as well — that Robb Akey, the head coach who was trying to get his program off the ground, said the system worked against a coach trying to rid the program of bad apples left behind. You’re simply left to keep those players unless they’re too disruptive. (And yes, I realize there’s a counter-argument here, that it’s insurance for athletes against a coach who might be running players off indiscriminately.)
A few years ago, when the Times was compiling an annual survey of college coaches prior to the season, we asked them what they thought of the APR. The reception wasn’t exactly resounding — 21 favored it and 17 were opposed. One coach called it “very superficial.”
Having said all that, the APR clearly has its merits. When both athlete and school are working to see that he/she gets a degree, it can’t be all bad. And remember, the only real NCAA academic metric before the APR was the federally based graduation rates, a clumsy, ill-conceived measure based on six-year windows.
So the APR is, on balance, probably a good thing. It might not be as good as some of the NCAA fathers would lead you to believe.