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FIU stresses academics

New approach led to better Academic Progress Rates

Two years ago, Pete Garcia finally admitted his men’s basketball team had a problem.

The Academic Progress Rate of Florida International University’s team was hovering in the mid-800s, far below the 930 benchmark for both penalties and access to the postseason. The APR measures the academic success of Division I athletics teams by tracking the retention and eligibility of student-athletes. Garcia, the athletics director, looked at the team’s academic history — specifically, an APR that never climbed above 910 in all 13 years of data collection.

It was time to do everything he could to help the student-athletes on the team succeed in the classroom, he said, and not be solely focused on winning every game. Just admitting that was a struggle, he said.

“Nowadays, everybody is concerned about winning, but at the end of the day, our No. 1 responsibility is to graduate our student-athletes,” he said. “Sometimes, you just look at the numbers. But you need to look at individuals. This is personal. These are young men and women.”

The shift in attitude came from the top down, Garcia said. FIU’s board of trustees, president and Garcia himself started making the academic performance of student-athletes a priority. The athletics administration held biweekly meetings and discussed everything from overall academic performance to the smallest of details, such as who had skipped a class that week.

“We emphasized how important this was,” he said. “At the highest levels, everyone bought in and backed us with resources and support. Then you show your coaches and student-athletes and other administrators that you’re not just saying it’s important — you’re part of it. It’s coming from the top, and we were willing to take the time.”

One of the resources Garcia tapped was to hire an outside firm, Forward Progress, whose staffers helped him by analyzing the school’s eligibility and retention numbers and putting together a plan for improvement. Garcia recommends that anyone in a similar situation figure out exactly where they are, then move forward.

“Once we had a clear picture of where we were, we could figure out how to get from point A to point B, and get everyone involved from the student-athletes to the teachers and the coaches and administrators,” he said.

The men's basketball team got to point B — its most recent APR is 968.

FIU took its APR struggles seriously, not because of the low numbers themselves but because of the people those numbers represented. It wasn’t just about winning games anymore. It was about helping those students succeed in life.

“The way the economy is going, a college degree is the minimum anybody should have right now to be able to have a decent living standard,” Garcia said. “Ninety percent of these kids will never go to the next level (athletically). This is how we make a difference in their lives and in their families’ lives.”