Not Keeping Up: HBCU Athletes and Academics

Not Keeping Up: HBCU Athletes and Academics

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Fifty or so years ago, before they became commonplace at major colleges such as Louisiana State, the University of North Carolina and the University of Florida, the nation's top African-American student-athletes played at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Grambling, North Carolina Central and Florida A&M. Professional scouts knew where to find them, too, traveling to black schools to watch future all-time greats on the basketball court, football field and baseball diamond.

But HBCUs no longer serve as black athletes' primary pipeline to the pros. That function is left to big-time programs in the major conferences regularly featured on TV. Fine. Part of progress includes the right to attend any school, and if prime-time athletes largely abandoned HBCUs, so be it. However, it's not fine if HBCUs fail to adequately educate the athletes they receive.

According to the NCAA's annual Academic Progress Rates, HBCUs aren't getting the job done for their athletes in the classroom, ostensibly the schools' most important battleground. The NCAA report, which measures the eligibility and retention of student-athletes, is calculated for every team at each Division I school, using data collected over a rolling four-year period. Teams are rewarded for retaining athletes and for having athletes make progress toward degrees that year. Low scores lead to penalties, including bans on postseason play and a reduction in scholarships.

In this year's report, spanning the academic years from 2006-2007 to 2009-2010, 103 teams at 67 schools were sanctioned for poor academic performance. Of those teams, 33 hail from HBCUs. Of the eight teams that suffered postseason bans, half hail from the historically black Southwestern Athletic Conference.

The numbers are alarming because they're so disproportionate. More than 340 schools were evaluated for APR, but only 24 -- about 7 percent -- are HBCUs.

"We are concerned about that," NCAA president Mark Emmert told the Associated Press. "We have met with those institutions to help them develop ways for improvement and to help provide resources to help them be successful."

Resources, or the lack thereof, are cited as the main factor in HBCUs' lagging performances. The powerhouse programs at predominantly white institutions employ an army of academic advisers and professional tutors to help student-athletes, surrounding them with substantial infrastructure and support systems. And those student-athletes never have to take time to participate in fundraisers, or make long road trips solely to play in big-money "guarantee" games to help balance the athletic department's budget.

George Wright, president of Prairie View A&M, has seen both sides, having worked at the University of Texas and Duke before accepting his current job eight years ago. "I have often speculated about [Heisman Trophy winner] Vince Young, who went to Texas from an inner-city Houston high school," Wright told NCAA.org. "If a kid with the same academic profile as Vince Young went to Prairie View while Young goes to Texas, Young would do better over time because of the resources they can provide.

"Every administrator here at Prairie View has two jobs," he said. "That's part of the problem. Yet, if you look at our graduation rates, our athletes graduate at a higher rate than our other students do. But we often come out of this with a lower APR. We come across as seeming to not do so well with our athletes in the academic sphere."

The NCAA needs to address its formula in cases where a school might be penalized even though its athletes perform better academically than nonathletes. It also needs to take into account that some schools admit borderline students to grant them a second chance, or because they'd be the first in their family to ever attend college.

More resources would help, too, and the NCAA is re-examining its Supplemental Support Fund, which provides $1 million in grants to "assist low-resource institutions [not just HBCUs] with funding academic needs." The fund was introduced a few years ago. "We have to assess whether those grants made any difference at all," Walter Harrison, chair of the NCAA Committee on Academic Performance and president of the University of Hartford, told Inside Higher Ed. "It sounded like a good idea at the time."

However, as demonstrated by high per-pupil spending in school districts with low academic performance, money alone isn't the answer. And not every HBCU is struggling to achieve adequate APR. Those that are falling short need to figure out what the others are doing and follow suit. If and when they receive additional funding, they need to execute a solid plan, or the money will go to waste.

At least Emmert recognizes that the APR disparity is a legitimate problem. One of his main missions as NCAA president is promoting the academic success of student-athletes, and he wants every school to focus on that task. At the same time, he realizes that HBCUs are unique in their role, even to this day.

"We want to help them develop plans for improvement," Emmert said. "But clearly, some of these institutions have a different scope and mission, and we need to be cognizant of that as we try to help ... We have a special obligation to work with HBCUs."