Fixing the NCAA’s Quandary on Historically Black Colleges

The NCAA slapped postseason bans on 18 Division I teams on Tuesday for failing to meet its academic-progress requirements. All but three of those teams are at historically black colleges, continuing a troubling pattern among less-wealthy institutions.

Since introducing the Academic Progress Rate 10 years ago, the NCAA has set aside some $6-million to help historically black and largely minority institutions improve their numbers. Few people think that’s enough, in part because money is only part of the problem.

Many less-wealthy programs lack the wherewithal to monitor players the way big athletic departments do. One Southeastern Conference institution, for example, has 16 full-time academic-support staff members to help athletes stay on track to graduate. Academic advisers at that level make frequent contact with faculty members and coaches, and know exactly how many academically troubled players they can admit before risking APR penalties.

Compare that record to the Southwestern Athletic Conference, where 11 of the NCAA’s postseason penalties were handed down. Some institutions at that level have just one academic adviser for athletics. Few of those advisers have the time to help the hundreds of players they are responsible for, let alone devise an initial-eligibility assessment for the next year’s class.

Such low-resource institutions often have trouble attracting the best academic coordinators. And sometimes they get what they ask for. On one largely minority campus, the job requirements for an academic adviser include a “willingness to learn NCAA rules,” not an understanding of them already.

The mission of many historically black colleges also puts them at a disadvantage in Division I sports. They have the noble goal of admitting first-generation students, many of whom come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. But plenty of the transfer students they admit arrive with spotty academic records.

Add all that up, and it’s easy to understand why so many historically black colleges are stuck in a kind of APR purgatory. Fortunately, some of them have found a way out.

When Michael Moleta arrived at Texas Southern University four years ago, 12 of the athletic department’s 16 sports were in “dire straits” academically, he said in an interview on Tuesday. The university, which plays in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, had just one academic adviser for its 300 athletes, and its finances were among the worst in Division I.

Mr. Moleta, a former NCAA staffer who was a liaison to its Committee on Academic Performance, presented research to the university’s president showing that by increasing the number of academic-support staff members per player, institutions could improve their athletes’ graduation rates.

The university’s president, John M. Rudley, gave the green light to hire three more academic advisers. Including Mr. Moleta, a senior associate athletic director who oversees compliance and academics, the university now has seven positions on its academic-support and compliance staffs.

With the extra bodies, academic advisers there now have time to look more closely into high-school players’ academic backgrounds months before the coaching staff has to make a decision about a scholarship.

“We tell kids, ‘If academics is not your priority, you don’t need to come here because we’re going to push you academically,’” Mr. Moleta says.

In addition to making changes on his campus, Mr. Rudley, the Texas Southern president, led an NCAA committee charged with finding solutions to the broader HBCU quandary. The group has helped spare many low-resource institutions from the most severe of penalties as those colleges work to shift their priorities.

At Texas Southern, that shift involved doing a better job of recruiting, Mr. Moleta says.

His mantra: “We’ve got to stop recruiting kids we can get in. We’ve got to recruit kids we can get out.”

Another shift—redirecting money from coaches to academics—will be a tougher sell. Some historically black colleges pay their football coaches $300,000 a year.

“Why not pay them $250,000, and get yourself another academic person?” Mr. Moleta says. “The money is there, you just have to get your priorities straight.”

George C. Wright, president of Prairie View A&M University, agrees. A member of the NCAA’s Presidential Advisory Group, he has spent many hours debating the place of historically black colleges in Division I.

At one of the first meetings he attended on the subject, he had “something of a chip on my shoulder,” he says. “I went in ready to do battle with them about APR and historically black colleges.”

But after speaking with colleagues and NCAA staff members about the challenges at his level, he softened.

“They really gave me—and anyone who had concerns—a fair hearing,” he says.

Although his institution was not among those penalized on Tuesday, he is still concerned about the negative articles he reads about his peer institutions. The best way to change that cycle, he believes, is for more historically black colleges to put greater emphasis on academics and compliance, rather than just winning games.

“The reality is, we’re probably not going to be that successful when we play a basketball game at the University of Kentucky—and we won’t make a lot of news when we lose to Kentucky,” he says. “But we do get a lot of negative publicity when we have NCAA sanctions or these kind of negative stories. Our schools have got to make it a priority to change that.”

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