This spring the national governing body released the results of its first study of all 326 Division I schools, totaling over 5,700 separate athletic teams. According to the NCAA over half of these schools had at least one team that did not meet a graduation rate of 925, a figure derived by crunching the numbers for graduated student athletes against those leaving the school without a degree. That 925 number is supposed to reflect an ultimate graduation rate of 50%, and the raw data was taken from the 2003-04 school year.
The NCAA released results for schools as a whole and their individual teams, and when Mississippi State fans saw the snapshot-summary many blinked. Headline writers leaped upon the fact that four Bulldog sports—football, men's basketball, men's outdoor track, and women's soccer—fell short of that soon-to-be infamous 925 number. This news, combined with NCAA threats that eventually such shortcomings will produce penalties such as scholarship reductions, had Bulldog backers begging an explanation.
MSU compliance director Bracky Brett says this is no alarm, merely an alert being sent all across D-I. "What this first report does is give the institutions an opportunity to look at where we are at right now, before we ever get into a phase of penalties."
In other words, don't panic. There is less here than today's headlines might herald…but also more than the current stories will explain. The groundrules for college sports are changing again and programs that don't adapt quickly risk losing more than a player or a game.
For now, though, Mississippi State has merely been told that some squads did not hit the arbitrary number for a single. And according to Brett, they didn't miss by much. "We have four sports that are under the ‘cut' score, but all four are within the confidence boundary that has been set up so if we were in the penalty phase there are no sports that would be penalized."
For that matter, all four teams are close enough to the 925 cutoff that they could easily land on the other side of the line when next year's scores are calculated. As a whole the Mississippi State program averaged 933, near the median score for comparable public universities. All Bulldog and Lady Bulldog teams were over 900, and only State and Vanderbilt from the SEC had all teams fall within acceptable ranges. "We're happy with our report," Brett said.
Relieved is another way to say it. Athletic administrators have anticipated this report and while most schools had an idea, under the graduation-calculation criteria, where they stood the confirmation has been welcome to many. It has also been disturbing to many more, and confusing to everyone not yet savvy in the NCAA's newest numerology.
"I think the whole purpose of putting this information out there for the public, the institutions, everybody, is to educate everybody on this process," said Brett. "It just shows us where sports are in relation to all the sports on our campus, and how they compare to institutions nation-wide and their same sport nation-wide."
Or does it? The NCAA is already finding problems in the reporting process and could issue adjusted numbers as early as April. Some schools either misunderstood instructions or made mistakes. And of course there is the natural suspicion of intentional errors.
The larger issue is that this first report could be seen as a rough draft. A ‘confidence boundary' has been built in primarily because one academic year is a single small sample, even with tens of thousands of student-athletes. The APR is really to be counted over complete college ‘generations.'
"It's four years of ‘rolling' data," said Brett. "Once we build up four years as we add a year we drop the oldest one, we keep a four-year snapshot of where we are."
Mississippi State fans have heard for years that Bulldog athletes were performing in the classroom, making SEC honor rolls and ranking with elite colleges, public and private alike, in graduation rate. So confusion over initial word of the four problematic teams was natural.
It has to do with how APR is calculated. It is a composite figure reflecting whether scholarship athletes stay eligible, stay at their original school, and finally graduate. Each semester a student-athlete does this scores two points for the team/program; a full year is four points.
An eligible athlete leaving school before graduation (transfered, turned professional, dismissed, etc.) costs a point, or is ‘1-of-2.' And an ineligible, departing athlete is ‘0-for-2.' The APR is then calculated by taking the team's actual point total and dividing by the points possible if the entire team (all scholarship players, such as 85 for football, 11.7 for baseball, and so on) graduated on a four-year schedule. The result is measured against 92.5%, the NCAA's new magic number.
"The reason it's four years is because you have a ‘retention' point and an ‘eligibility point'," Brett explained. "There are four years of eligibility. If a kid comes in, plays four years and graduates, in the APR scheme of things that is the ideal student-athlete."
But is the ideal real? What about changing majors, or longer degree programs, or illness, or family emergency, military service, and so on? Brett said the retention point applies even if it takes an extra year to graduate. "Kids that stay in school and are finishing their degree we still get credit for." But if they don't graduate, it can hurt the score in another four-year period. Or not. It will take years of data to see what APR really means.
It will also be a while before anyone pays a price for low graduation rate. Talk of ‘contemporaneous penalties,' that is of losing scholarships, grabs the headlines. But this hardly the whole story. "There are all sorts of other penalties being considered," Brett said, "but when you talk about losing scholarships boy, flags go up everywhere. You are only going to be penalized in the area of scholarships if you have athletes that leave not eligible. The 0-for-2s. You're not ever going to be penalized scholarships for a 1-for-2, or 3-of-4. The kid that exhausts his eligibility, you're not going to be penalized for that. It's the kid that transfers out, not eligible."
Make no mistake, losing or dismissing eligible athletes is not a good thing. And in fact most players who do depart are eligible, so the ‘retention' point is lost. These are the ‘1-for-2' and ‘3-for-4' types. "And if you have a lot of them you may lower your APR significantly, or you may not," Brett agreed.
Lose enough of either and eventually penalties will be assessed. But this, too, has been misunderstood in hurried first reports on the subject. Scholarship losses are the last stage of a long process. In fact the first penalty is merely a warning letter alerting the school to the situation, with a year to correct any problems.
"Then the second year you get into contemporaneous penalties, where you look at possible—repeat, possible—scholarship losses," Brett said. "There are also recruiting sanctions against coaching staffs being considered, reductions in official visits, scholarships. All of those things are being looked at."
But if the worst case comes to pass for a school and sport, the earliest Brett forsees actual scholarship penalties would be for the 2008-09 athletic year. "Because you're got 2005-06 to get a letter, in 2006-07 you get a penalty. If it's a scholarship you're already recruiting for next year, so they let you delay it! That's the whole thing. For 2007-08 I recruit knowing the penalty, and the next year is when I'm actually penalized."
Or, he adds, some schools might want to accelerate the process. Say a coach is comfortable with the team's roster for the foreseeable future, and knows a star player is turning pro early without securing eligibility for the following school year. The program can choose to take their penalty a year early. "You just don't replace them," Brett said.
"Everybody hollers about scholarship reductions, but I think we're really two years away from actually seeing any contemporaneous penalties. And they may change the structure between now and then!"
But if there are no changes, and current academic trends continue, there will be penalties in three to four years. In the worst cases teams could conceivably lose up to 10% of available grants, and the NCAA rounds percentages upwards. Thus football's worst penalty is 10% of 85 grants, or nine; and basketball 10% of 13, or two.
That 10% cap on losses exists for practical reasons, Brett said. "Because you're only going to lose scholarships that you have the number of 0-for-2 athletes. Now, if an institution has an APR way below the cut score, even below the boundary, and that list of 0-for-2's is five and three meet exceptions and two don't, you lose two scholarships. The cap was put on there for a school that for some unreal reason had, say, 12 (football) people that were 0-for-2. Well, they're not going to penalize them 12, they're going to cap it at nine."
So the NCAA's purist rules aren't so absolute, it seems. Also, Brett said the penalties adjust for sports that give partial scholarships. "In the present form you are only penalized for the kids that leave ineligible. In the head-count sports (football, men's basketball, many women's sports) that's a full scholarship, in the equivalency sports it's whatever amount of money they've got. If an 0-for-2 kid left and all he had was books, all you're going to lose is books. That's the only way to do it. That's why they are identifying the 0-for-2 kids. It makes it fair for equivalency."
In the big athletic picture this week's news is just a small snapshot from a single year's graduation and eligibility data. But one fact stands out: men's basketball is clearly the sport in the most APR danger. Stories of awful academics in many high-profile programs are nothing new, but lists published this week reflect the scope of this issue. Now, add to uncertain grades the fact that players regularly leave either to turn pro or in search of playing time, and many, many programs are suddenly in trouble.
"Two basketball players leaving to go pro will absolutely destroy your APR," Brett said, "because classically they'll leave right after the season and not even finish the semester. Those are 0-for-2s. With football most of the time they finish the fall semester and don't even count in the spring."
Counting is very much on administrative minds this spring as now the NCAA wants more graduation data for the last four years, and has changed how the numbers are calculated. For instance, previously schools did not get credit for athletes that transferred in, only those who enrolled as freshmen and stayed the course. Here the NCAA has flexed to allow incoming transfers to count for the new school, and transfer-outs who graduate elsewhere not to count against.
Already schools and even fans are asking what-ifs scenarios—illness, church service, military service, loss of majors and courses, and so on. Brett said there is still plenty of room for questions. "The stock answer is there is a waiver for everything. If a kid drops out and leaves ineligible you'd probably go ahead and put him down as an 0-for-2. If that caused your APR to drop below the level, then yeah, I think there would be a process to explain something." Also, athletes leaving ungraduated with no more playing eligibility don't count against.
Brett noted that even now some schools have taken proactive steps. Specifically, they are encouraging athletes who left ineligible to return to school, which at least salvages one APR point.
"You can go back and correct your data and keep the retention point. That's already happened. It encourages you, for guys that want to come back, to provide support for them to get their degree."
There is a huge irony here, well-known to anyone closely associated with college sports. Athletes as a whole graduate at a higher rate than the student body as a whole. Nation-wide maybe half of all freshmen entering college (public and private) this past year will eventually earn a degree. Student-athletes do better, sometimes a lot better.
Such as at Mississippi State. "Our teams here, all of them, have consistently graduated at a level higher than the University," Brett said. "By 10 to 12 percentage points. Athletes typically do graduate at a higher rate than the student body as a whole."
Just don't expect most media to mention that fact. Or even the NCAA for that matter, which often seems more interested in public relations moves than actual and practical reform. And it is very probable that some of the data released this week is not correct because of errors and misunderstandings in reporting.
Thus the ‘confidence boundary' Brett spoke of, which is why those four Bulldog teams that did not hit the 925 target are not in any danger of penalties. "We have four sports that the APR is below the cut score. But they are all within the confidence boundary for that sport, for that squad size.
"The committee is providing this information this year only to educate the membership regarding the penalties. Now, next year with two years of data will obviously be a more accurate picture of what's going on. Then as we get to three and four years of data, at that point you will get a true snapshot of what you are doing."
And at the moment Mississippi State can be reasonably satisfied they are doing what is necessary to stay on the sunny side of the APR line.
"We're thrilled that we have no teams that would face any kind of contemporaneous penalties," said Brett. "But at the same time, if other schools do have some teams (that do), they have an opportunity to look at it and put a plan together to correct it, to keep from getting to that penalty stage three or four years down the road. And will it change what we recruit, how we recruit? We'll have to wait and see."