JSU Football and APR
Here is a link to a very interesting article on the NCAA and the APR measurement. Please read and let us know your thoughts.
The CSN Way: FCS and the APR
By Chuck Burton, The CSN Way Columnist
Myles Brand’s campaign to set academic standards “with teeth” has definitely changed the collegiate athletics landscape, but not in the way that any of its architects may have imagined. Last year, its effect was seen very strongly in the cost-containment world of FCS football – and this year, we see the first FCS victim of the “teeth” given to the APR: UT-Chattanooga.
The Academic Progress Rate (or APR for short) attempts to get a real-time view of the academic progress of colleges at the end of a year. If an athlete is retained – meaning ‘stays in school’ – a school gets two points. If an athlete is eligible – meaning ‘holds above a 2.6 average’ – a school gets two more points. Add all these athletes’ numbers up for a year, divide that by the maximum number of points and multiply that times 1,000, and you have your yearly APR number. Do this for a 4-year period and you have your official NCAA APR number.
The NCAA determined that if a school finishes above 925 out of 1000 possible points in their APR numbers, an institution can escape penalties (According to the NCAA, a 925 APR corresponds roughly to a 60% graduation rate.) In addition if a school has an APR above 900 but doesn’t have anyone transfer or drop out that isn’t in good academic standing, that school also escapes penalties.
As has been the case for the past four years, the APR results were released with a flourish by the NCAA, saying that they are ‘creating positive behavioral change among Division I institutions’. There are recognition lists – and punishment lists, despite the repeated references in the NCAA literature that the APR was not created to be “punitive”.
For those schools that fall below the thresholds, the historic penalties are extremely harsh. Scholarships can be taken away and practice time might be restricted. If it persists for more than three years, loss of postseason opportunities and even loss of sanction as a Division I school are possibilities.
The goal of the APR is a noble one: to create academic standards that can apply to all Division I schools. Academic reform is going to be NCAA president Myles Brand’s legacy, and it has the potential to be something great for college sports. Cleaning up college sports is the right thing to be focused on, making sure kids are graduating and schools aren’t trying to cheat the system.
In the NCAA’s APR public recognition for the best APR rates this year, there are many FCS schools – including the entire Ivy League, Bucknell, Colgate, Davidson, Dayton, Holy Cross, New Hampshire, Richmond, Villanova, and William & Mary.
These schools for the most part have a similar profile. For example, only two of these seventeen schools – New Hampshire and William & Mary – are public schools. All of them are wealthy private schools, and all are expensive to attend. All of them have extremely selective admissions departments. Even with the economic downturn, nine of them have billion-dollar endowments – Harvard and Yale’s endowments are more than the gross national product of some countries.
All of these schools are – let’s face it – expected to be in the upper echelon of any academic ranking system. All are already nationally (and some internationally) known for having great academics. They are also all extremely well funded.
Interestingly, they also field some of the best teams in FCS. In 2007, Dayton went 10-1 and won the Pioneer Football League championship (as well as a postseason win in the “Gridiron Classic” that year). New Hampshire, Richmond and Villanova all made the FCS playoffs and Richmond won the FCS national championship. Of the teams in playoff autobid leagues, only Bucknell and Holy Cross have not made an appearance in the FCS to the playoffs in the past five years – and even so, Holy Cross has had four straight winning seasons and came within a whisker of winning the Patriot League title in the past three years.
In contract, terms of schools facing APR “historic penalties”, FCS schools also make up the majority of those named. These schools also share a lot of similarities.
Of the 33 football schools that were subject to penalties in the latest APR report, twenty-one of them came from FCS. Of the twenty-one schools, only three are private institutions.
Howard, with its $500,000 endowment, has by far the richest endowment of the twenty schools that actually have endowments. Another two – UT-Martin and UT-Chattanooga – are part of the extremely troubled Tennessee State system who recently have faced $56 million dollars in budget cuts due to budget shortfalls. Five more – Delaware State, Morgan State, Howard, North Carolina A&T and Jackson State – are historically black universities who have had big resource difficulties as well.
Two of these schools made the FCS playoffs last year (Weber State and McNeese State), and one school made it to a postseason championship game (Jackson State out of the SWAC). Their combined postseason record in 2008 was 1-3.
In a nutshell, if you’re being praised by the NCAA for great APR rates, chances are you’re a rich, private school with an extremely selective admissions department. You also probably have a pretty good FCS football team. If you’re being punished, however, chances are you’re a state school that cannot depend on a rich endowment. You also are likely to have an FCS team that hasn’t exactly ripped it up in postseason play.
FCS schools face some unique challenges in APR compliance that FBS schools do not have to face.
Unlike FBS, where football is what is considered a “headcount sport”, FCS football is an “equivalency sport”, meaning that in FBS there is no way to divide up scholarships – either you’re on full scholarship, a walk-on on the way to a possible scholarship, or not playing the sport at all.
In FCS, schools can award up to the equivalent of 63 scholarships. However, in FCS scholarships are divided up all the time – meaning, with rosters of 90 or more kids, scholarships are broken to offer partial scholarships to more players. Those students on partial scholarships frequently have to spend money out of their own family’s pocket to play at an FCS school. And every FCS roster has them.
“We have good players paying to play in our subdivision,” Southern University Athletic Director Greg LaFleur said. “And in [FBS], you get paid to play.”
As a result, many less-well-off FCS schools have financial retention issues that never even enter the mind of an FBS head football coach. What that also means is that if a student needs to “pay to play” football, and finds himself suddenly not able to afford the school and has to drop out, that counts against a school’s APR.
For the purposes of the NCAA’s APR calculation, the student who flunks out of school on a full scholarship counts against his school the same way a student on a ½ or even a 1/3rd of a scholarship who has to leave school since his family can’t afford college.
“If we don’t meet their aid 100%, we have kids that will move on to other schools,” one FCS coach told me, “to compete for playing time somewhere else if they’re not playing. One freshman [on partial scholarship] that counts against [our APR] this year says flat-out, ‘I’m not going to play here.’ What am I going to say to him? ‘Oh, yeah, stay here, you can really beat him out?’ He’s not going to beat him out! The kid had an enjoyable period here, but he just wants to get an opportunity to play somewhere else.”
These sorts of situations cannot occur at an FBS school. The matter seems to come down to pure economics. If an FBS athlete (or an FCS athlete on full scholarship) is getting a free education to play football at the school, he might be hesitant to transfer – but if he’s only getting a partial scholarship and paying part of his way already, there is less to hold him at his existing school.
“The APR was written to apply to [full] scholarship athletes,” one athletic director told me. “We’re being asked to be held to the same standards as those [FBS] schools, but our circumstances are quite different.”
Although the A in APR stands for “academics”, the discussion hasn’t been about that side of the APR equation: more often, the word you hear is “retention”, or how to keep kids in school once they get there.
Retention issues on football teams have a lot of causes, and they are not always academic in nature – for example, a player might want to transfer to be closer to a girlfriend back home, they might have lack of playing time, they might have struggles at home, or simply wish to play football games where the parents can come locally to watch and support him.
“I’ll take the heat for all the kids that come in and are incapable academically,” one frustrated head football coach told me, whose team GPA is over 3.0 but whose team faces historic APR penalties. “But the NCAA wants you to be held accountable for not retaining a kid not liking an experience he spent a weekend on reviewing a school and assessing a football program?”
One retention issue comes up at FCS schools that don’t seem to come up at full-scholarship FBS schools: money. “It’s not grades, it’s not GPA, it’s not graduation rate,” one FCS coach told me. “The issue here is retention. We have some kids who are kicking, crying, screaming because they have to leave because something’s happened and they can’t afford to stay. Yet our athletes’ GPA and graduation rate are higher than that of the student body. ”
Morehead State athletic director Brian Hutchinson has found financial retention to be an issue in his school’s football program, who received an APR warning in 2007. “The common denominator seems to be that the family finances don’t always work,” he said. “Many times the kids we lose tend to be in a situation where it is difficult for them and their families to sustain them being here when they could be going closer to home.”
“When we keep kids for four years, they tend to graduate. We don’t seem to have problems graduating kids if we can get them through. The problem is we lose them too early. When they’re here, they persist and go through to graduation. [Our APR scores] come more from retention, not eligibility.”
Southern Utah’s athletic director, Ken Beazer, is another AD who is concerned. “Ironically, retention has to do with scholarships,” Beazer told the Southern Utah Spectrum. “A student-athlete is less likely to leave if they’re on [full] scholarship. They don’t want to leave that much money on the table and go somewhere else.
“I’d be less than honest if I said it’s all retention, but in the cases I’ve been looking at least 50 percent of point loss are through retention,” he said. “The NCAA APR forces athletic administrators to put resources into retention.”
The retention issues at different schools are as wide and varied as the reasons the students give themselves for transferring. In some cases, this focus on retention is at odds with other institutional goals.
Sacramento State deputy director of athletics Bill Macriss, whose Hornets were subject to historical APR penalties this year, points to retention struggles as well. He told the Sacramento Bee that part of the school’s mission is to take in community college transfers. If those transfers struggle, their APR is negatively impacted.
Remedial course work is sometimes required to bring some transfers up to speed in the classroom – classes that, for the purposes of the NCAA measurements, don’t count as course credit. “Transfer kids have been our highest risk students,” Sacramento State athletic director Terry Wanless told the Sacramento Bee. “The mission of the university is to take JC kids. They in turn struggle.”
What’s the solution? One possibility is becoming more selective in admissions – financially.
“We put together, at the behest of the NCAA, an APR improvement plan for football,” Hutchinson said. “What we said is we know the [financial side of retention] is going to be trouble, so we have to provide every bit of mentorship that we can to these kids to hopefully find young men that have a solid enough family background – and that means in lots of different ways, but financial support would be one of them.”
The NCAA’s Fix-It Plan
One of the most recent APR improvement plans that were made public came from an NCAA performance workshop in 2007. It featured Middle Tennessee State’s APR improvement plan, who competes in the FBS in football. Meant as an example of how an athletic department should cope with the new APR requirements, MTSU’s part of the presentation details what they are planning to improve their APR standing.
Phase One of MTSU’s plan involved doubling the academic staff and adding new offices and new technology to their compliance department. Phase Two involved an aggressive tutoring program: freshmen athletes get special tutors once a week, while any non-freshmen athletes with less than a 2.25 and a 2.49 GPA are required to meet with tutors twice a week.
(MTSU’s APRs for their football and basketball programs ended up below the 925 threshold in 2007, but in 2008 their football team’s APR was 945 – the first time ever they were above that number. In men’s basketball for the second straight year their APR was 906 – but, curiously, they didn’t get a public reprimand from the NCAA.)
The Powerpoint presentation makes it look like anyone could increase their compliance if they just follow MTSU’s lead. However, these types of costly options are not open to all Division I schools. Unsurprisingly, the issue once again is money.
“When the rules came out, the big-time schools hire three more academic coordinators and another compliance person to stick with these kids left and right,” on FCS coach told me. “Put them in the right courses, put them in the study halls, stick with the tutors, all that other stuff… they’re going to force them to get it right. We don’t have that luxury.”
“We are finding that [APR compliance] has a lot to do with institutional resources,” Montana State coach Rob Ash said, whose Bobcats improved their APR numbers enough in 2008 to get relief from the penalties imposed on them in 2007. “The schools that have the most money are getting their APR problems fixed, and the ones that are struggling for resources are having more difficulty because it just takes a lot of money to hire the people, and put the facilities in place for academic support.”
Morehead State certainly can’t afford this type of budgetary demand for football compliance. With a non-scholarship football program with a tiny budget compared to other FCS schools (just under $700,000 in 2005), economically it makes no sense to increase spending on football compliance alone. (You wonder if the entire Morehead State football budget would buy even a portion of the office space that MTSU is getting.)
The NCAA has identified this as a problem. “We went to a training where the NCAA had identified schools that may have resource issues,” Morehead State AD Brian Hutchinson said. “One of the things we have is a very modest academic support system within athletics. The purpose of that meeting was to try to help us develop some ideas going forward to putting together an APR improvement plan.”
The upshot seems to be, however, that some FCS athletic departments are going to have to work harder and get more creative in order to retain students – while still spending less. Without the resources to hire three more compliance officers to track student-athletes, that means the responsibility falls on coaches who are spending more time in study hall and making sure their athletes are in academic compliance.
“I’m embarrassed because of what came out (their failure to make the APR thresholds in 2007),” said Southern athletic director Greg LaFleur, who was a former scholarship athlete at LSU. “I’m embarrassed for me and Southern University. But if we had the resources to make it better for our students, we’d have done that. If we could afford summer school for all our athletes, we would do that. We want to make sure our kids get whatever they need to graduate.”
In 2007, Montana State head coach Rob Ash said that he was hopeful that Montana State’s yearly APR that year would be above 925. Coach Ash arrived in Bozeman after the previous head coach was fired after a pattern emerged with former players and coaches getting involved in serious problems with the law. He also discovered that As a result, for four years straight their yearly APR was below 925, “and only one year was it above 900,” he said.
“Our institution is working really hard to improve our APR given the resources that we have,” he said. “We don’t have the resources of the Big 10, but we are committing the resources that we can locate. We’ve really tried to stress to our players the absolute necessity of attending every single class, of staying on target with all their assignments, and flat-out being students.”
It is possible for teams to get exemptions from the severe historical penalties that the NCAA imposes on teams whose four-year APR falls below the thresholds. Unfortunately for the twenty-one FCS schools affected, they were not granted exemptions – although the NCAA certainly could have.
UT-Chattanooga appears to be the first victim of the historic penalties imposed by the NCAA. Of the three “Occasion Three” teams that face a postseason ban, two are schools playing FCS football. While Jacksonville State’s football penalties are being appealed, the Mocs are the first to suffer a post-season ban as a result. No FBS-level school had to suffer these penalties.
For UT-Chattanooga, it didn’t have to be that way either.
In 2007, UT-Chattanooga’s football team went from an 816 yearly APR in 2006 to a 928 – marked improvement by any measure. Yet the NCAA did not choose to give an exemption, even though other schools were given exemptions because they showed “marked improvement”.
In that same year, according to an article in The State (SC), of the 492 teams across all sports that were penalized, 66 teams from BCS conference football schools were granted exemptions merely on the basis of their APR improvement plans. While the list of institutions given exemptions was not made public, USC, Ohio State, Maryland, Indiana and Purdue had them granted, mostly in men’s basketball.
Some of the exemptions strained belief. The University of Maryland’s basketball team was given a special “squad-size adjustment” since “fifteen of the twenty-one [retention] points lost by men’s basketball in the four-year period were due to student-athletes who left to pursue professional careers.” In other words, their players are not graduating since they “go pro”, so they don’t count towards their APR.
Indiana’s basketball team also were given an adjustment since “this past year, IU improved its APR figure by 40 points and because of that improvement, the program will not be subject to scholarship penalties,” the university released in a statement. Only a month after getting the exemption, head basketball coach Kevin Sampson had to step down after facing serious recruiting violations.
In football, South Carolina was given an exemption since they had submitted an APR improvement plan. Purdue’s football team was given an exemption for the same reason. Others, including Minnesota, Mississippi State and South Florida had APRs under 925 but were not penalized because they didn’t have anyone transfer while academically ineligible.
At least some of these exemptions were given because they have either spent money to hire more academic coordinators, built more office space, or been able to demonstrate a great increase in year-to-year APR. However, many of the twenty FCS schools demonstrated a great increase in year-to-year APR in 2007 and had submitted APR improvement plans – in more challenging financial conditions. None of the FCS schools were given exemptions.
Why did many high-profile football and basketball programs get exemptions in 2007, and how come this list of FCS schools did not? It’s a question that the NCAA still hasn’t answered. Had the NCAA given UT-Chattanooga the same benefit of the doubt that was given to Indiana’s basketball program in 2007, the Mocs (who were winless last year) might not have to face the prospect of reclassification and might actually have a post-season to play for this year.
In other words, had UT-Chattanooga been given an “FBS exemption” in 2007, they wouldn’t have a postseason ban today.
The APR Going Forward
The APR can be an effective tool to measure retention rates in schools going forward.
Despite the issues emerging with the APR calculations, Montana State head coach Rob Ash credits the APR program with improving academics at both Montana State and other schools. “I know the APR program is working,” he said. “I know schools are making a huge commitment now to academic progress because of the teeth in the APR [in the form of penalties]. When the scores are low, it’s not just the program – you need a wide-ranging scope in order to do well with the APR. The penalties need to have teeth in order to get the kind results.”
The APR is working in the sense that schools are devoting time, energy, and creativity towards making sure kids stay in school and graduate. However, tweaks are necessary in order to make it fair towards FCS schools, many of whom are resource-poor or handle scholarships in a much different way than FBS schools.
When special exceptions are given to resource-rich schools while denied to resource-poor FCS schools, a cynical message is sent to schools that the APR is simply a onerous regulation that can be “bought off”. That has to stop. If an exception is granted to Indiana basketball for having a yearly increase in APR, Weber State should not be denied the right to the same exemption.
FCS and FBS football is all Division I. However, the way scholarship money is used can be very different, and ought to be treated differently by the NCAA. If the existing APR is working for FBS schools, it should be maintained the way it is. However, the FCS should have its own rules for APR calculations since it is a functionally different subdivision than FBS.
If an institution is classified as “resource-poor”, the punishment of certain sports programs while granting exceptions to others leaves open the charge that the NCAA is picking and choosing which programs to punish irrespective of the institution.
If an institution plays non-scholarship football at the Division I level, the APR rules for scholarships cannot and should not apply.
Here’s hoping that in the near future they’ll be talking about these issues covered in this article – and how to fix them.