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Has Baseball’s Graduation Gap Already Been Solved?

The College Sports Research Institute at the University of North Carolina released their most recent review of graduation rate data for student-athletes. This round included a surprising data point, especially given the common perception that academic problems are concentrated in football and men’s basketball:

Division I baseball players are 17.9 percentage points less likely to graduate than their peers, compared to 12.5 in football, the annual report found when studying federal graduation rates. The gap for men’s basketball players is 20 percentage points.

These numbers are based on the federal graduation rate, the most demanding of the different academic tracking mechanisms used. Student-athletes who transfer out of a school harm the graduation rate. Student-athletes who transfer to a school are not counted at all.

Like all academic rates except the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate, this rate is delayed six years. The study used the four-year average from the 2004-05 data. That means it includes the 2001-02, 2002-03, 2003-04, and 2004-05 cohorts of entering freshmen.

A lot has happened in NCAA academic reform both during and since those cohorts enrolled. The APR was introduced, weakened, strengthened, and tweaked. Initial eligibility rules have increased multiple times. Continuing eligibility rules went up as well.

And in baseball specifically, the NCAA rolled out a number of reforms targeted at the specific problems seen as contributing to the sports low graduation rate. Football’s low APRs and graduation rates were largely seen as an eligibility issue. Basketball’s are driven by retention (i.e. transfers). Baseball was a mix of both, so its sport-specific reforms targeted both sides of the coin:

–   Eliminating the one-time transfer exception and midyear junior college transfers;

–   Requiring baseball players to the eligible for the fall in order to be eligible in the spring; and

–   Financial aid changes designed to reduce the practice of signing many players to small scholarships, then running them off.

The transfer and academic eligibility rules started in the 2008-2009 academic year. The financial aid rules started at the same time, although a minimum scholarship amount started with the entering class of 2008-2009. It is only this year (2012-13) that the entire cohort of college baseball players is operating under all the rules in the reform package.

Baseball’s most recent published average APR (2010-11) is 963.9. 2011-12 data should come out in the next couple of months. In 2004-05, by comparison, baseball’s average APR was a 935.3. This includes a change in how transfers are calculated, so looking at the eligibility half of the score is also useful. Baseball saw a similar jump, rising from 938.0 to 969.8 over the same time period. That was the biggest gain of any sport in the eligibility calculation.

This illustrates an inherent problem with graduation rates and the APR when it comes to judging the effect of the NCAA’s academic reform efforts. It takes six years to determine if the NCAA’s rule changes had any effect on whether not athletes actually got degrees. In the case of changes with delayed or phased effective dates, it can be even longer. We will not know the graduation rates of the first class admitted under new initial eligibility rules passed in October 2011 until October 2022.

Because the APR has a primary purpose of enforcing academic standards, it cannot be relied upon completely as a proxy for graduation rates. The wrinkles that have been built into the APR over the years to make it a tool for banning teams from the postseason muddy the numbers and make it a worse tool for assessing academic changes.

One method would be to introduce a “pure APR” that would not be used to enforcement purposes, but merely for research. The pure APR would remove all exceptions, waivers, and exemptions from the calculation. It would simply ask the two questions in the APR as a simple yes and no: was the athlete eligible and was the athlete retained or graduated?

That data exists in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Program already. Schools report yes, no, or no with some explanation for the two questions each term. Converting all “no, but…” answers to a simple “no” would give you a clean APR score for research purposes. That would give you an APR score that will track more closely to the ultimate outcome in the federal graduation rate, and give more confidence to any claim that a given APR score projects to a given graduation rate.

Without some new tool, be it a clean or pure APR score or some new tool invented by the NCAA or researchers, the understanding of athlete academics will always be hampered by long waits to see the results of changes. Poor numbers from athletes who were freshmen long ago drive the cry for more changes. And at that point, drawing a conclusion that can be deemed “scientific” to any degree is impossible because there are too many variables.

Which brings us back to baseball. It is entirely possible that the NCAA has already solved this graduation gap. Baseball’s across the board APR improvement might indicate higher graduation rates. But we cannot be sure due to changes to how the APR is calculated and the malleable nature of the APR itself. And even if it has been solved, it will be a challenge to figure out which of the NCAA’s chances had the most impact and which should be sunset as ineffective.

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