U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan lauded the NCAA this week for raising academic standards among Division I teams in postseason play. If the standards, which begin next year, aren’t met, teams won’t compete. “There’s no better way to teach life lessons than on the playing field or on the court,” Duncan said during a conference call with reporters.
Rewind about one year, and Duncan’s words for the NCAA weren’t so kind: raise your academic standards—now. (He even accused universities of having “skewed priorities.”) The stern warning paid off: NCAA announced late last year that they would boost their academic requirements.
Under the plan developed by the NCAA, sports teams are judged based on their Academic Progress Rate, or APR, a somewhat loose measure that considers each player’s academic success and progress toward graduation. Players can receive up to two points each—one point for simply staying enrolled (regardless of academic outcome) and another point for remaining eligible to play (a minimum of six credit hours). Last year, the APR required for postseason play was 900, far below 50 percent, not to mention the eligibility requirement for scholarships (925). New benchmarks, which will be phased in, require all teams to have a score of 930 or higher, equivalent to 50 percent, to be eligible for postseason play.
Increasing the APR threshold would make for interesting tip-offs during March Madness if ranked teams were actually disqualified. If the APR cutoff was in place for this year’s tournament, 13 men’s teams and three women’s teams wouldn’t meet the NCAA’s new academic benchmark.
But is the NCAA really raising standards? Not exactly. They have actually set an arbitrary benchmark well below the national average.
In 2011, the national average APR across all teams, no matter which sport, was 970, up three points from the prior year. The most popular sports, the ones that drive revenues and scholarships, also saw increases, but as a whole, they fell below the national average:
- Football APR: 946, up two points over the prior year
- Men’s basketball APR: 945, up five points
- Baseball APR: 959, up five points
On the court or playing field, these teams strive for excellence. In the classroom, shouldn’t they do the same? Or at least aim to be average?
None of the national average APRs reported last year, for women’s or men’s teams, fell below 930. I don’t intend to dismiss the NCAA’s focus and attempt to add more academic rigor to athletic competitions. A 30-point jump (from 900 to 930) is nothing to scoff at. But let’s not tout a new academic benchmark for individual teams that is still 40 points lower than the national average. That’s not teaching life lessons; that’s teaching teams to do just enough to get by. Survive and advance may be good strategy for the NCAA tournament. But it’s not enough for a university that wants to prepare student athletes for life after the championship game.
For more on the intersection of academics and college sports, check out Education Sector’s coverage of March Madness.