This month, most American universities and colleges with popular athletic programs will proudly watch thousands of students walk across a stage, shake hands with academic officials and congratulate them on earning their degrees — after really great basketball tourneys and bowl series.
But then there are some schools who have fallen under scrutiny for a lack of academic progress and are actually being penalized for not upholding NCAA Division I standards in its Academic Progress Rate metric, or APR. As a result, certain athletic teams have been banned from participating in postseason activities (UConn’s men’s basketball team, for example, was ineligible for play in the 2013 Big East and NCAA Basketball Tournament, although they returned this year to win the latter).
The APRs rules state that if half or more of student-athletes on teams are not on track to graduate, then the team will not be allowed to participate in postseason play.
For the coming academic year the APR ban, which affects 36 schools in total, have hit several HBCUs particularly hard. Although the protocol is intended to encourage stronger academic performance at all NCAA schools, officials at HBCUs feel their schools will be left at a financial disadvantage because larger, better-funded schools in conferences like the Big 12, the SEC and the ACC are able to give student-athletes the academic boosts they need. But in conferences like SWAC, which has had six schools banned, funding for academic help for their athletes is not within the budget.
And leaders at HBCUs are quite correct to call foul.
HBCU athletic programs that are banned from postseason play in 2014-15 include Florida A&M University (men’s basketball and football); Alabama State University (men’s basketball and football); Alabama A&M University (men’s golf); Prairie View A&M University (football); Mississippi Valley State University (football); Savannah State University (football); University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff (football); Norfolk State University (men’s indoor and outdoor track); Delaware State University (men’s indoor track); and Howard University (men’s soccer, women’s lacrosse). Other schools are facing lesser penalties based on APR rules.
But these schools have all faced varying degrees of financial hardship and are consistently making cuts and scrambling for funds to keep their programs open, athletic and academic. This leaves them between a rock and a hard place . Without financial help from the NCAA, they are not likely to show vast year-over-year improvement.
“The average graduation rate for all students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is 36 percent,” John Rudley, Texas Southern University President and SWAC Council of Presidents Chairman said in a press release last week. “The NCAA’s APR requiring a graduation rate for student athletes of 50 percent or better is set so high that most HBCU’s and other limited resource institutions cannot meet that standard.”
The current rule states that a team must clear a multi-year average of 930 points or a two-year average of 940 points to be eligible for the postseason. That’s an increase over the 900 point threshold the NCAA used for the better part of the last ten years. The overall average for HBCUs is 953, which represents a slight improvement over the past three years.
The NCAA has pledged to work with limited-resource schools and HBCUs to bring them up to the APR standards. In 2012, the association announced $4.8 million in funds to assist student-athletes in “limited resource” schools, that includes 21 out of the 24 HBCUs in Division I. However, the NCAA also claims that 90 percent of its revenue goes to support student-athletes.
The NCAA had $913 million in total revenue in fiscal 2013, with a $61 million surplus, according to USA Today. $4.8 million is about 0.5 percent of that revenue.
Now, none of this is to say that student-athletes should not set themselves on a course for that walk across the stage. On the contrary, they are in college to excel in their studies just like any other students. But the boosted APR standards have left behind schools that don’t have the financial resources to academically bolster student-athletes. That in turn means, HBCUs are at risk of not contending for championships in the same manner as schools in the power conferences.
So if the NCAA expects for colleges like FAMU, Alabama A&M and others to reach the same level that schools in the power conferences have, sharing some of the money generated by college sports overall would help. Allotting only $4.8 million over the past couple of years won’t really make a dent for schools that may have trouble keeping the lights on.
Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. He writes for NewsOne on the subject of Black males in America. Follow him on Twitter: @madisonjgray
[Editor's note: A previous version of this article misstated Alabama A&M University's postseason eligibility.]