Putting the 'Student' Back into the Student-Athlete: In an Effort to Improve Retention and Graduation Rates, the NCAA Rolls out New Rules and Regulations

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College sports is a numbers game, full of so many calculations--batting averages, free-throw percentages, BCS and RPI scores--that keeping them all straight can be a full-time job for a sports program. Now, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has put a new number on the table, and it has captured the attention of every athletic director, coach and student-athlete in Division I.

The number is 925--and it represents the magic number in the NCAA's multiyear effort at putting the "student" back into "student-athlete." Under the new system the NCAA began rolling out on Feb. 28, schools that have an "academic progress rate," or APR, of 925 or above have demonstrated a graduation rate of at least 50 percent and are safe from NCAA penalties.

Schools that don't make the grade will earn a whack with the NCAA's stick: They'll face "contemporaneous penalties," i.e., they'll start losing athletic scholarships, explains Diane Dickman, managing director of membership services for the NCAA.

And that's not all. If the APR drops below 925 for a period of years without improving, the school will face even stiffer "historical penalties": Limits on post-season play, perhaps even restricted NCAA membership. The exact details of those sanctions have not yet been ironed out, Dickman adds.

But all in all, says NCAA President Myles Brand, the new system represents the most "far-reaching academic reform in decades."

Dr. Lee McElroy, director of athletics at the University at Albany and a member of the NCAA's Division I Management Council, agrees.

"Our goal is to change the culture among our member institutions," says McElroy who was one of the original 17 consultants involved in deciding the direction of academic reform efforts. "We spent three years looking at background research and considering various directions. Now that our recommendations are being implemented, I think we're going to see great benefits," McElroy says.

THE NCAA'S NUMBERS GAME

So just what does the magic number mean? And how did the NCAA arrive at it?

According to NCAA spokesman Kent Barrett, the APR is based on points awarded for eligibility and retention, the two factors that are the strongest indicators of whether a student-athlete will graduate. Each player on a given athletic roster can earn two points under the APR system: One for remaining academically eligible to play and one for staying with the institution.

As an example, let's say a student-athlete decides to transfer to another institution to improve his chances at playing time. His former school loses the retention point, but if he's in good academic standing when he leaves, the school still gets to count his eligibility point--for a total of one. If, however, a player leaves early to go to the pros without bothering to take his final exam in history class, the institution loses both points because the student wouldn't have been eligible to play even if he'd decided not to enter the draft.

Calculating each team's APR is a relatively simple matter, Barrett explains. The total points earned by the students on the team's roster are divided by the total points possible. Then, the resulting figure is multiplied by 1,000 for ease of reference. There will be waivers and exceptions for schools that come close to the cut score but don't actually make it. Waivers can also be given for smaller teams like golf and for teams that serve students from "economically distressed segments of the population"--such as urban schools and historically Black colleges and universities. The NCAA hasn't yet determined how to measure "economic distress," Barrett says, but he expects the Division I Management Council to take the matter up at its spring meeting in April.

The APR joins two other reforms aimed at reinvigorating the student portion of the student-athlete equation, explain McElroy and Dickman.

Phase one of the reform process began in 2003 with the NCAA's eliminating another "cut score"--in this case 820, the minimum SAT score required to play at the college level. …