The University of Connecticut men’s basketball team boasts the worst graduation rate of any Division I program in the annual National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament. Last year, the athletes’ academic performance was so bad they were flat-out banned from the postseason.
On Monday night, they were crowned national champions.
Happily, for the Connecticut men, they attend an institution with a $63 million athletics budget and plenty to spend on supporting their academic pursuits.
It’s known that the colleges in the five biggest and wealthiest Division I conferences are winning a college sports “arms race” to attract the best coaches and build the best facilities and, in turn, attract the best recruits. But there’s also an arms race in athletic-academic spending, a new study suggests, and the poorest programs are losing out.
By a lot. From 2005-11, the average Bowl Championship Series team’s athletic support services budget increased 48 percent, to $1.1 million, according to a study by Scott Hirko, an assistant professor of physical education and sport at Central Michigan University. Yet among the remaining Division I programs – those in the less lucrative Football Bowl Series – the average budget dropped 4 percent to just $160,000.
"Here’s the rub: those institutions that aren’t at the highest level don’t have the resources to be able to plug in those academic support services,” Hirko said. “They know that if they were to add more tutoring, they could improve. But they don’t have the money to do it.”
For teams that failed to meet a 925 Academic Progress Rate (which the NCAA says correlates to a graduation rate of 50 percent), academic support and tutoring budgets, as well as level of academic support staffing, were “strong predictors” of change in APR scores, Hirko found.
The results, which Hirko presented at last week's American Educational Research Association conference, include 113 institutions (58 FBS, 39 FCS and 16 with no football) from 28 Division I conferences.
It’s not exactly shocking that programs with more money to pour into tutoring are seeing improvements in academic scores, Hirko said. The more startling point is exactly how much more they’re pouring in.
“The concern is worse, I think, than people had initially thought,” Hirko said, adding that the number of support staff might range from 1 at a low-resource institution to 15 at a well-off one.
NCAA officials have acknowledged that their academic reforms – most recently, raising the minimum APR from 925 to 930 – have hit “low-resource institutions” and historically black colleges and universities the hardest.
After the most recent APR report showed that 15 of the 18 teams penalized for insufficient scores were from HBCUs, NCAA Committee on Academic Performance Chair Walt Harrison admitted that the association’s $6 million pledge to help HBCUs meet the new standards is “certainly … not adequate.”
Yet on the whole, APRs are rising; the average APR in 2012-13 rose one point to a record-high 974.
“If you invest in academic support services, you will see an increase in their APR scores – if you can find the resources to invest,” Hirko said. “How can the others catch up, if they want to be competitive in putting academically prepared athletes on the field?.... Those that don’t have access to those major areas of revenue generation [media contracts, ticket sales, etc.] have to find some other strategy to comply with the policy.”
Hirko noted the real possibility of colleges admitting more academically prepared athletes -- or, steering athletes toward easier courses and majors or redesigning curriculum to keep APR scores up.
But there are many unanswered questions in the data, said Jim Pignataro, president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics and associate athletic director for student services at Michigan State University.
Having less money and fewer staff certainly affects an office’s ability to track the day-to-day progress of athletes and keep the overall APR up, Pignataro said.
“When you have an operation at a low-resource school that has two or three folks, you can’t possibly track it at the level that they do at a larger program,” he said. While support staff may be able to work with coaches and other staff to keep their APRs up over the long term, half of maintaining academic performance is effective roster management, Pignataro said. A university with high individual athlete turnover (due to academic struggles or not) might see its APR suffer as a result. Same goes for a team with a negative coach or culture.
Regardless, the N4A is working with the NCAA on a grant program to bring officials from academically successful programs to help others assess and improve their work.
“I think there are many areas within intercollegiate athletics, between low-resources and high-resource institutions, that cause issues for competitive equity, and it’s not just in academic support,” Pignataro said. “We get bogged down in this notion of, what service should be provided? But at the end of the day…. only each institution can identify that.”