At Savannah State University, a historically black college in Georgia, the school’s Division 1 football team has no chance of making it to the playoffs next year. It’s not because of the team record. Rather, it’s among 36 teams nationwide barred from playoffs because of National Collegiate Athletic Association academic ratings.
“It kind of limits us to a certain type of recruit because you obviously can’t go to postseason play,” says Sterling Steward Jr., Savannah State’s athletic director.
Like most of the teams on the list, Savannah State is among the Division 1 schools with fewer resources.
“We have a very limited budget, but we are very competitive in everything!” Steward says.
Even so, Savannah State is spending all it can on tutoring, study time, and other resources to improve its athletes’ performance and graduation rates. Steward expects the school to be free of restrictions within two years.
The NCAA’s so-called Academic Progress Rate started about a decade ago. It measures how many student athletes get good grades and stay in school or graduate. It’s also getting tougher, which is why the number jumped from 13 barred from postseason play last year.
Critics of the NCAA are quick to point out, though, that none of the teams penalized this year are top tier schools with big budgets.
“You don’t want the richer schools to suffer penalties, because they’re the ones generating the money for you,” says David Berri, a professor of economics at Southern Utah University.
He says the NCAA has a history of penalizing under-resourced colleges, while giving rich schools a pass, even crystalizing into a joke among NCAA-watchers: “We just found a major school was cheating again. Looks like another smaller school is going to need to pay a penalty,” Berri recounts.
Berri thinks the Academic Progress Rate is a way for the NCAA to answer critics who think college sports have become too removed from academics. He notes that students can go pro after one year and not affect a school’s score.
“It is done to address the criticism that a lot of these athletes are not being as educated as people would like them to be,” he says.
The NCAA doesn’t buy it. It says student performance is going up under the program, even at less-resourced institutions.
“The issue here, more than anything else, is making sure that all of our institutions are achieving an academic rate, where they are being successful and graduating students,” says Azure Davey, director of academic and membership affairs at the NCAA. “There have been large strides made at our limited-resource institutions on an academic front.”
The NCAA has provided more than $4 million to help schools like Savannah State provide tutoring and other services. And, Davey says, the NCAA has programs to give struggling schools more time too boost performance.
But as much as they improve, it’s hard to compete with a college that can just throw money at the problem.
For another view of the story, here’s a look at the schools that came out on top of the academic rankings.