Uphill Battle for HBCU Athletes

Despite some targeted support from the NCAA, historically black colleges struggle to keep up with increased academic standards. Given enrollments dominated by underprepared students, is more money enough?

June 17, 2013

It was striking, yet not particularly surprising, that sports teams from historically black colleges and universities made up the vast majority of those the National Collegiate Athletic Association banned from postseason play next year because of poor academic performance. The NCAA itself recognizes that the institutions face extra challenges: When the NCAA voted to raise academic standards in October 2011, it gave HBCU’s and other “low-resource institutions” an extra year to come into compliance (they have until 2016-17). The association has also dedicated about $6 million over the next several years to help those institutions meet the new standards.

But the fact that 15 of 18 teams penalized for insufficient academic progress are from HBCUs (that’s three more than last year and 10 more than the year before) illustrates the extent to which those institutions – which admit more first-generation and underprepared students than most universities, yet tend to have fewer academic advisers – are being disproportionately affected. And with the admission this week by Walt Harrison, University of Hartford president and chair of the NCAA Committee on Academic Performance, that the association’s extra financial support for HBCUs is “certainly … not adequate,” it’s unclear how these teams will fare as the NCAA continues to phase in its new rules.

As the NCAA is eager to point out, HBCUs are still improving academically. Over all, their Academic Progress Rate – the NCAA’s measurement of classroom progress as gauged by athletes’ eligibility, retention and graduation over four years – has increased 15 points in the last two years, to 947. However, they still struggle to keep up with the scores of their better-resourced peers, which averaged 974 in the latest APR data. (A perfect score is 1,000. The new minimum, which the NCAA is phasing in over the next two years (three for HBCUs), is 930, which the NCAA equates to a 50 percent graduation rate.)

“I think the numbers aren’t that alarming – we continue to see improvement,” said Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs. “Do we have some programs that maybe got a wake-up call later than we anticipated? I think that’s true…. But I do think that we’re at a point now where we have everyone’s attention, and that was purposeful.”

William Harvey, president of Hampton University and a member of the NCAA Division I Board of Directors, wrote the proposal that led to the NCAA giving HBCUs more time and money to meet the new standard. While he’s pleased with the support and believes HBCUs will adjust accordingly, he had advocated for an extra three years to transition, not the one year that the NCAA allowed.

However, Harvey praised the NCAA’s financial support, which awards $300,000 to six different HBCUs for academics each year for three years. Through the pilot project, created in 2012 and called the Accelerating Academic Success Program, institutions can apply for funding via a detailed submission, requiring presidential involvement, that includes “concrete measurements for success.” Where the money goes depends on the individual needs of the applicant – for example, one might need to hire more academic advisers, while another might want to buy iPads to keep athletes in touch with professors when they’re on the road.

“The trajectory is on the right path, and the fact is that every HBCU is not in trouble,” Harvey said, noting that four teams at Hampton scored perfect APRs, and no teams there were penalized for low scores. “I believe that HBCUs and other quote-unquote underfunded institutions will be able to rise to the occasion. I come down at the beginning and at the end of the day on higher standards.”

But when it comes to meeting those higher standards, money goes only so far, said Bart Byrd, associate athletics director for student-athlete services at Baylor University and immediate past president of the National Association for Academic Advisors for Athletics.

“The reality is, the response comes back on the kids, and so the kids have to make the effort to come to school and do what they have to do,” Byrd said. “You can still study if you don’t have money, that’s the reality of it. It just takes a little bit of encouragement.”

So while more tutors, more computers and nicer study halls are desirable and indeed helpful, Byrd said, the biggest difference-maker is encouragement from the people who set the tone of a program.

“I think the NCAA is trying to do the right thing…. Now these schools have to take advantage of the opportunities. Clearly, your coaches have to buy into the philosophy. The athletic directors have to buy into it and say, you know what, academics are going to be a priority on our campus,” Byrd said. “I’m not saying they’re not doing that, it’s just, how are you going to refine where you are putting your resources now?”

Through the advisers’ association’s APR consulting group that works with programs at smaller institutions to increase efficiency and effectiveness, Byrd has seen colleges where a single person is responsible for all 15 sports and 500 students. In some cases, there isn’t even a full-time staff member. When advisers are inexperienced, they might not know about the various campus resources that can supplement their advising, like a writing or math center.

The academic advising profession already deals with high turnover due to limited upward mobility, heavy pressure from coaches to keep athletes eligible, and at some institutions, having just a few or even just one adviser responsible for hundreds of athletes.

“A lot of these HBCUs will hire very young professionals who don’t have a lot of experience yet,” Byrd said. “You see a lot of burnout.”

John M. Rudley, president of Texas Southern University and chair of the Southwestern Athletic Association Council of Presidents and Chancellors, asserted in a statement that the APR standards “unjustly punish schools with limited resources.” Noting that athletes at HBCUs graduate at rates higher than non-athletes (that is true on average for all institutions, according to the NCAA’s method of measuring rates, which some have disputed), Rudley said those colleges should be applauded for graduating so many students (about 36 percent in six years) who are underprepared when they arrive on campus.

“Because of this majority view held by the NCAA it may not be surprising that just like other parts of the real world, the voices of the larger schools, the Bowl Championship Series schools, the wealthier schools, seem to carry more weight than those of us designated as HBCUs,” Rudley said. “Our challenge, as we see it, is to express to the NCAA that one size does not fit all. We contend that the NCAA APR standard conflicts with the mission of our universities. We emphatically state that we are fulfilling our mission.”

The NCAA also keeps a Supplemental Support Fund, a pool of money reserved for academic needs such as staff or equipment at about 40 low-resource institutions, and it also created an HBCU advisory group for guidance on how to help those colleges meet the new academic standards. However, the advisory group also recommended that HBCUs be given three years to transition rather than one. In addition to the new APR minimum, the NCAA raised the minimum grade point average required for initial eligibility from 2.0 to 2.3. HBCUs have an extra year to transition toward that as well.

Despite the advisory group’s recommendation, Lennon, of the NCAA, is optimistic that HBCUs will continue to progress as the 2016-17 deadline approaches.

“While we have more of those teams on that list of those penalized, the vast majority of our limited-resource schools are not subject to penalties,” he said. And in many cases, Lennon noted, the problems are limited to one or two teams at an institution – pointing to broader issues of recruiting particularly underprepared students, or team dynamics that do not emphasize academics.

“What we need to figure out is, why is it working within the institutions that have that mission for some teams but not others? That’s the critical question.”

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