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Have Baseball’s Academic Reform Efforts Worked?

In 2007, over the vicious protests of the baseball community, the NCAA membership passed three proposals: 2007-7, 2007-8 and 2007-9. These proposals were a first-of-its-kind package of academic reforms targeted at a specific sport. The legislation touched on academic eligibility, transfer eligibility, financial aid, and squad sizes. To quickly recap, the NCAA made the following changes:

–   To be eligible for the spring semester (and the regular season), baseball student-athletes needed to be eligible for the fall semester.

–   Midyear transfers from junior colleges are not eligible until the following fall.

–   Baseball student-athletes can no longer use the one-time transfer exception (the most widely used way student-athletes avoid spending a year in residency).

–   Baseball squads have a limit of 35 student-athletes for the spring season.

–   A limit of 27 counters (splitting 11.7 equivalency scholarships) was imposed on baseball, along with a 25% minimum scholarship.

Despite numerous attempts to roll back the changes, these rules have been largely untouched except for a couple exceptions to the minimum scholarship rule. Schools can ignore the 25% minimum if they award athletics aid based on need or when awarding aid to walk-ons in their final season of eligibility.

Six years have passed, five years of APR data for baseball under the new rules is in, and the NCAA is declaring victory. The NCAA points to a more than 30-point jump in the APR from 2003-04 to 2011-12, and a 7-point increase in baseball’s Graduation Success Rate.

Digging a little bit deeper, a big chunk of that increase appears tied to the baseball academic freeform efforts. But retention lags behind, which raises questions about the effectiveness of some of the most controversial proposals in the package.

On the eligibility side of the equation, the effect of baseball’s eligibility rules seems clear. Baseball’s average eligibility score started at 940.7 and now sits at 976.2, an increase of more than 35 points. But from a score of 939.1 in 2005-06, the average eligibility score jumped 27.9 points in two years, sitting at 967.0 after 2007-08, the year following the academic reform package. Since then baseball teams have made incremental gains on the eligibility front to get to the current score.

On the face of it, retention tells the same story. Baseball’s average retention score started at 918.9. It then ticked up to 928.5 over the next few years before jumping to 951.9 by 2008-09. From there it has remained hovering around the 950 mark.

But retention scores (and thus overall APR scores) are not an apples-to-apples comparison over the life of the APR. In 2007-08, the NCAA started including a transfer adjustment for athletes who left with at least a 2.600 GPA, GPA Calculator, and immediately enrolled at another four-year college. Until this past year, baseball had more transfer adjustments each year than football or men’s basketball. Here are the numbers from 2007-08 to 2011-12:

–   Baseball: 176, 157, 173, 160, 161

–   Men’s Basketball: 138, 132, 161, 158, 200

–   Football: 130, 139, 167, 151, 191

That would suggest that a good bit of baseball’s retention improvements are the result of transfer adjustments rather than simply higher retention.

On the other hand, transfers into Division I institutions are down significantly since before the reforms. In 2006-07, the year before baseball lost use of the one-time transfer exception, 652 or 8.5% of the scholarship players on Division I rosters had transferred from another four-year institution. That has fallen since then steadily and rapidly to just 189 or 2.8% in 2011-12. At the same time, both FBS and FCS football have been flat or had small decreases while men’s basketball’s transfer rate has nudged upward.

Such a dramatic decrease has to include at least some transfer activity between Division I institutions being limited by the more restrictive transfer rules. But portions of that reduction can be explained by fewer transfers from Divisions II or III or NAIA, since those athletes can no longer play immediately upon arrival. It also does not account for Division I scholarship players who transfer out of Division I or drop out of school entirely.

Equally difficult is teasing out which rules are responsible for this reduction. If the one-time transfer exception is causing more athletes to stay put, that is an academic win. But if the transfer reduction is caused by the squad size and counter limitation, that is harder to defend. Athletes might not be retained at a higher rate. There might just not be opportunities in Division I for players who must be carried on the roster and on scholarship if they cannot play for a year.

Which brings us back to the goals of the reform. Baseball’s academic package had two primary goals:

  1. 1.     To prevent baseball players from ignoring academics in the spring, then getting healthy in the fall and summer; and
  2. 2.     To prevent coaches from awarding large numbers of small scholarships and using the fall semester as a tryout.

Goal #1 has been achieved. It is almost impossible to argue that requiring baseball players to take both semesters seriously is not good for APR scores and graduation rates. It is built right into the legislation. To be eligible for the fall, baseball players must have earned the eligibility point in the spring, exactly the points that research showed teams were losing.

The jury is still out on Goal #2. We do know that fewer athletes are on scholarship. Baseball’s APR cohort includes about 1,000 fewer student-athletes in 2011-12 than it did in 2006-07 for schools in Division I the whole time. We know transfer activity into Division I institutions is down significantly. And we know that baseball’s retention score is up, although exactly why is less clear.

The full year eligibility rule should remain, and probably be expanded to other sports (basketball especially). The midyear junior college transfer rule probably should stay, but also reviewed in light of the new junior college transfer requirements.

On the other hand, the squad size limit only limits opportunities for student-athletes. It more often than not means walk-ons are cut, who do not factor in APR or graduation rates. Take this scenario: a baseball team is carrying 36 players at the end of fall. One of the scholarship players falls ineligible and is kicked off the team. Because he is a counter, he counts against the 35-man squad limit, meaning a walk-on still has to be cut.

The minimum scholarship and counter limit seem duplicative. The point of both is to prevent teams from carrying large numbers of athletes on small scholarships, often just for books. Again, the combination of these rules limits opportunities. There are only so many ways to cut up 11.7 scholarships 27 ways when the smallest piece is 25%. Coaches should either be asked to split 11.7 amongst 27 counters however they like or split the scholarships across as many athletes as they like, so long as each is at least 25%.

Finally, the one-time transfer exception ban should get a long look. It is possible that it has little effect, with the other rules limiting transfer opportunities more and the APR transfer adjustment explaining much of the gains in retention scores. If transfers are still occurring at roughly the same rate, but have moved into transfers out of Division I, that would be a good indicator that it has not worked. And given that removing baseball from the one-time transfer exception was academically motivated, if that exception gets an academic nexus then baseball’s return to the rule should be explored even further.

Baseball’s experience over the last few years has to be considered an overall success. Now this concept is out of the pilot phase. Football has its own sport-specific eligibility rules, and basketball received a number of affordances designed to improve retention. The sport should continue to lead the way by reviewing its rules and loosen restrictions that target solved problems or which did not have a significant enough effect to justify the cost.

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