Grappling with GPAs

The NCAA's new academic measuring stick has brought change--and anxiety
March 05, 2007

TWO YEARS AGO,when the NCAA released the first Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores, UC Daviswrestling coach Lennie Zalesky had no idea that his team would become what hecalls "a black eye for the university." His program had a solidacademic record and would later be honored by the National Wrestling CoachesAssociation for outstanding achievement in the classroom.

But out of apossible 1,000 on the APR, the NCAA's new gauge of whether schools areresponsibly educating their athletes, Davis's wrestling program scored 885: Theacceptable minimum is 925. Because two wrestlers left school in the year thatwas under review (2003--04)--causing UC Davis to be marked down on the APR--theprogram was deemed negligent.

"You lookedat the other schools below 925, and it was embarrassing to be lumped withthem," Zalesky says. Particularly disconcerting: Several teams fromSacramento State--Davis's rival and a school it considers a less-refinedneighbor--were also flagged. "Washington Monthly ranked us the 17th-best[academic] school in the nation, and now the perception here was that thewrestling team did something to diminish that," Zalesky says.

The APR hasforced UC Davis and other schools to change the way they operate. It rendersgraduation rates less important than how student-athletes are doing while inschool. As a result, teams are moving to a new way of recruiting, educating andeven coaching players.

Every scholarshipathlete can earn two points per term toward a team's APR: one point for beingacademically eligible and one for remaining at the school. To calculate theAPR, the NCAA takes the points a team earns and divides it by the team'spossible maximum; the resulting percentage (with the decimal point removed) isa program's APR. Scholarships can be forfeited if the score dips below 925.

The fear oflosing scholarships has made coaches more reluctant to run players off or takeon academically at-risk recruits. "Many things have changed, but we've seenthe most significant shift in recruiting," says Kevin Lennon, the NCAA'svice president for membership services. "In the past, coaches might havehad autonomy over who they brought in. Now there is a greater institutionalreview of recruits."

Coaches askquestions they never would have before, like, Does this recruit have agirlfriend who might prompt him to drop out? Some coaches get weekly updates ontheir athletes' academic progress, a practice that once was solely the concernof support staff.

Predictably, theAPR has stirred controversy, particularly when the first round of scholarshipreductions was announced in March 2006. Of the 6,112 Division I teams, 105 lostscholarships; a mere handful were major conference teams in football and men'sbasketball, the sports that the APR was expected to affect most. The biggestnames were San Diego State's football program, which forfeited fourscholarships, and the men's basketball programs at Arizona State (two) andDePaul (one).

The results drewskepticism. "The big schools that have a history of not graduatingkids--the schools that the APR was created for--are they now suddenly doingthings differently?" asks an AD at a smaller-profile school. "Or arethey just hiding kids in classes and majors that can keep them eligible?"Adds Davis's Zalesky, "If athletes we bring in here, kids who come in withan average GPA of 3.2 and a minimum 1500 [of 2400 on the] SAT, don't make itsometimes, how are the athletes at these other schools making it? It makes youwonder what they are pulling."

The new systemhas also caused a shift in team dynamics. "It can change the way youcoach," says former major leaguer Ed Sprague, baseball coach at Pacific."You ask yourself questions like, If I don't give this kid immediateplaying time, will he transfer, and what does that mean for my APR?"Sprague needs to be especially sensitive to this possibility because his sport(unlike football and basketball) permits athletes to play immediately upontransferring.

The NCAA hasshown a willingness to adjust the guidelines. After some coaches complainedabout being penalized for athletes who left early for the pros, the associationchanged the rule so that schools lose points only if the departing players areacademically ineligible. Coaches like Zalesky and Sprague have to adapt too,because the APR is here to stay.

"I rememberwhen I first heard the term APR, I figured it wasn't going to be a concern ofanyone here," Zalesky says. "Now it's what I worry about most."

PHOTOBRAD MANGINHOLDIT
Zalesky (inset) now worries as much about APR as about the moves of Daviswrestlers like Ken Cook (top).
PHOTO[SeeCaption Above.]

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