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Limited-resource schools, HBCUs continue APR improvement trend

Many schools benefit from NCAA's academic improvement programs

While the overall Academic Progress Rate and nearly every measured demographic continue to improve, teams at historically black colleges and universities have made significant and remarkable progress.

The single-year APR for HBCUs increased from 918 to 956 in the last five years, with many schools benefitting from NCAA programs designed to support academic improvements. This far outpaces the overall APR  increase of six points in the same time period.

The Academic Performance Program assists HBCUs and limited-resource schools in a number of ways. Among them, it provided teams a longer period of time to improve their scores to surpass the 930 penalty threshold from the old benchmark of 900, and allows teams at some schools to avoid penalties if they show improvement.

Additionally, the Accelerating Academic Success Program offers financial assistance to limited-resource schools, many of which are HBCUs, to support their academic needs.  The NCAA staff also is working with those schools to develop educational initiatives that will help administrators learn and apply best practices from similar schools where student-athlete academic performance has improved.

North Carolina Central University is one of the schools that has seen its team APR numbers improve from the low 900s (some of its teams were as low as the 800s) in 2008-09 to the mid-to-high 900s in the most recent release. Several North Carolina Central teams earned a perfect 1,000.

Etienne Thomas, associate athletics director and senior woman administrator at North Carolina Central, said the turnaround wasn’t due to one particular decision or moment. Instead, she credits a variety of changes that underscored the school’s commitment to the academic success of all its students, an attitude that began with the school’s president and was supported at every level.

“It doesn’t mean everything is always perfect, but we are communicating and everybody has the same goal -- from the chancellor and the provost down to the coach,” Thomas said.

The school also changed the way it was recruiting. Coaches began to focus on academics in recruiting, and administrators implemented academic standards for incoming student-athletes that were higher than both the NCAA’s standards and the Eagles’ benchmark for the student body.   The school now requires coaches to fill out academic paperwork for students they want to recruit in addition to evaluating athletic prowess.

Genese Lavalais, associate athletics director for academics at Jackson State University, which has seen a turnaround similar to North Carolina Central, said her school employed many of the strategies that worked at North Carolina Central. Presidential oversight and involvement from outside athletics were key to its  success as well.

Jackson State also found it was important to motivate student-athletes. The school allows them to take up to 19 hours per term, and the athletics staff encourages them to take a heavier course load each term.

“We put them in the frame of mind that they can do it,” Lavalais said. “We believe in them and push them and make sure the campus team is behind them as well. We tell them up front you can leave here in five years with two degrees, but you have to make sure you are putting yourself in a position to make the scholarship work for you. … We are constantly motivating them. We want you to be successful as a student-athlete. And you can do both if you prioritize.”

Both North Carolina Central and Jackson State have received AASP grants, which helped pay for benefits like summer school for incoming freshmen, the expansion of academic support staff and new software to track students academically.

Though they’ve found success through the APP, Thomas and Lavalais both think the system could be improved.

“It doesn’t tell the entire story,” Lavalais said. A recent Jackson State hire, Lavalais has spent her career at three different HBCUs. At a recent stop, she was the only academics person working with 325 student-athletes. There were problems with transfers and drop-outs not because students were struggling academically or athletically, but because they had personal issues that necessitated a change.

“Sometimes, you’re just going to lose students,” she said. “You don’t perform well, we’re going to take practice time and add study hall. You still don’t perform well, we’re going to take more practice time and add more study hall. You still don’t perform well, you are banned from the postseason. For our students, it was in their minds that they had to leave. You can’t come back from that.”

The Committee on Academics continues to review the APP, and the impact on HBCUs and limited-resource schools is of ongoing interest to chair Roderick J. McDavis, president at Ohio University.

“The academic performance of limited-resource schools and HBCUs has improved more dramatically than that of any other demographic,” McDavis said. “We continue to examine a variety of ways to support schools and students who need extra assistance to achieve academic success.”

Dennis Thomas, commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, of which North Carolina Central is a member, agreed that sometimes schools like the HBCUs in his conference need additional assistance or consideration. But he also believes that standards like the APR come with Division I membership.

“In order to be a part of Division I, the athletics program has to meet the Division I academic criteria,” Thomas said. “Therefore we have to take a somewhat different approach to ensure that we meet the academic standards for our student-athletes.”

Thomas praised the AASP grants, which he called a “home run” for his schools, and encouraged the NCAA to continue to invest in programs that have similar track records of success. His schools also work together to share best practices. Though the competition on the field might be stiff, the administrators work together behind the scenes to help give student-athletes a chance to earn degrees.

“When it comes to the success of student-athletes in our conference, we want all of them on all of our campuses to be successful,” Thomas said. “That’s why we’re in this business.”