Just one day after its annual Presidential retreat concluded, the NCAA announced that the Division I Board of Governors had approved a new mandate to increase academic standards for student-athletes. While such a decision might usually be looked upon in a favorable light, in this instance it was met with much derision. The criticism directed at the NCAA focused not on the concept of higher academic standards, but on the way the organization plans to toughen up its approach.
In recent years the NCAA has relied on the Academic Progress Rate to track the academic performance of teams. If a team's four-year rolling average fell below 900 then it would be subject to penalty. Under the new mandate, that benchmark increases to 930, and any team that finds itself under this magic number will be barred from postseason play.
Many agree that the APR is an imperfect way of measuring academic success. A common criticism is that it unfairly impacts low-majors without the financial resources to provide the best possible advising and academic support. Another argument levied by national observers and humble bloggers alike is that the APR is unfair to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) whose missions and budgets are different from much of the rest of Division I. A growing consensus believes that an increase in these standards will further hurt both the little guy and the underrepresented, which are often one and the same in D-I basketball.
By looking at the list of schools that have been penalized in the last year one could well believe that the APR does indeed have an equity problem -- more than 80 percent of the teams listed come from the depths of D-I. But how does the APR fare when we look at a complete dataset rather than a few examples? In an attempt to answer this question, I used regression analysis to test the APR against two variables.
The first variable is men's basketball expenses as reported to the U.S. Department of Education. This is used to see if there's a relationship between APR and spending. For this task, I grouped teams by conference and established conference averages for both APR and expenses. While the results were statistically significant, men's basketball expenses only explained about nine percent of the change in APR.
A test of total spending on athletics also yields little practical significance. A more exact way of measuring the impact that spending has on APR might include expenses devoted to advising and academic support. While such an analysis could be illuminating, the data necessary to complete it is not publicly reported.
The second variable to test is the percent of undergraduate African-Americans enrolled at a given school as determined by data available from the government's IPEDS Data Center. While this variable does not capture all minorities, it serves as a useful way to determine if the APR has a disparate impact on the HBCUs. Again grouping teams into conferences, we obtain statistical significance and a more prominent trend. Here about 46 percent of the variation in APR is explained by the percent of undergraduate population identifying as African-American.
Interestingly, the SWAC and the MEAC -- where African-Americans comprise 93 percent and 87 percent of the undergraduate population, respectively -- have the lowest APRs of any conferences. Their presence in the dataset heavily impacts the charted results. If we remove the SWAC and the MEAC, the R-squared figure plummets to nine percent.
So while the argument that resource-strapped schools end up with lower APRs may not be entirely true, there is evidence to suggest that schools strategizing to serve underrepresented populations do take an APR hit. This is most true at the many HBCUs found in conferences like the SWAC and the MEAC.
The NCAA acted quickly to announce its latest approach to increasing academic standards. Like most major policy initiatives, the leaders stood out front to take credit for the innovation, leaving the staffers to develop a way to make it happen over the next few months. As these folks begin working on a plan of action, they would be wise to take a hard look at how the APR could be improved to prevent a theoretically neutral standard from having a tangibly adverse impact on HBCUs.
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