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How an NCAA academic rule is hurting under-resourced HBCUs

Many Historically Black Colleges and Universities are underfunded and don't have the resources to keep up with the NCAA's evolving academic standards. (Yahoo Sports illustration)

Edwin Nerette had a choice during his third year at Florida A&M in 2014: He could enroll in the school’s pharmacy program, into which he had just been admitted, or he could continue his pursuit of a football scholarship as a preferred walk-on. 

After consulting his coaches, advisers and family, Nerette decided to leave the game behind.

“I would've tried to juggle both, but because of the scheduling it wouldn't have worked out too well because of the way they had the classes set up,” Nerette said. “As well as the degree process for the APR [Academic Progress Rate] … I would’ve become ineligible trying to do both at the same time.”

Florida A&M, part of a network of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), had reason to be especially concerned about its APR at the time. The football team was in its second year of what would be five consecutive seasons of postseason ineligibility, among other restrictions, for failing to meet APR requirements. 

APR is a calculation used by the NCAA to incentivize schools to demonstrate a commitment to academics. Universities that exceed expectations receive awards, while those who underperform face decreases in practice time, loss of scholarships and postseason ineligibility.

Teams are required to meet a 930 APR benchmark to compete unpenalized — a score that projects to about a 50 percent graduation rate. 

The Florida A&M football program scored under 900 during the first three years of its postseason ban and had a 15-42 record over the five years it was penalized. They were one of 58 teams that faced penalties or postseason ineligibility during the 2014-15 season, only 19 of which were HBCUs.

In the five years since then, HBCU teams have made up 84 percent of those penalized or postseason ineligible. No Power Five schools have appeared on the list over that same period.

“Any school is doing this dance around the APR borderline,” said Derrick White, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky who authored a book on the history of black college football. “When black colleges get penalized, it further pushes the school down in terms of interest for potential student-athlete; it’s harder for them to recruit. They have to use tremendous amounts of resources to rectify.”

With the exception of California State-Northridge, all of the schools on this year’s list enroll under 6,000 students, and over half of them are HBCUs. 

These small institutions receive minimal state funding compared to state schools and have fewer alumni to drive booster clubs and donate to the school, leaving less money to build academic resources — which are essential to a program’s success in complying with the NCAA’s APR standards.

APR was implemented in 2003 to measure academic success more accurately than graduation rates, which are based on a freshman class that entered the program six years earlier. APR quantifies each student-athlete as two points each semester: one for eligibility and another for retention. If a student-athlete maintains a high-enough GPA to compete and returns the next semester or graduates, they’ll go two-for-two and score a perfect APR. Student-athletes do not lose points if they transfer to another Division I school in good academic standing or leave for professional athletic opportunities. 

Tom Paskus, the principal research scientist of the NCAA, said APR is constantly being evaluated to determine if it’s a “good and accurate predictor of graduation.” According to the association’s research, it is.

“We have to consider that there’s a lot of diversity among Division I members, a lot of different missions,” Paskus said. “We have some schools that are open admissions, so we’re trying to be inclusive of all our Division I members.”

HBCUs were founded to provide access to education for African-Americans during segregation. Many of those schools continue to admit students who are pell-grant recipients or didn’t perform well in high school under that same principle of access.

While the legacy of segregation plays a significant role in the lack of resources at HBCUs, the NCAA also hindered those schools from creating lucrative athletic programs. No black colleges were selected to participate in the NCAA’s first college division bowl games in 1964 — even though the quality of football at those programs was equal to or better than that of predominantly white colleges at the time.

The association then enticed HBCUs to join Division I in 1977 through a promise of significant increases in revenue, but the programs ended up burdened by the cost of adding 15 scholarships. Furthermore, the NCAA only sporadically broadcasted HBCU football games on TV. 

HBCUs started participating in guarantee games — which typically result in lopsided scores — as a source of revenue. Howard football, which the NCAA penalized for low APR scores this season, was routed 79-0 in August by Maryland in one of those games.

Maryland’s athletic department grosses nearly $100 million in revenue while Howard makes one-tenth of that. Howard officials declined to comment for this story.

But the paychecks from guarantee games don’t actually go very far.

“With football, you have to have a certain amount of scholarships,” Savannah State athletic director Opio Mashariki said. “A lot of guarantee money you get is going to be used toward scholarships so that kinda offsets itself.”

Savannah State, which grosses $3 million in revenue, is transitioning to Division II because of financial concerns, but the school also struggled with APR. Eight of the Tigers’ varsity teams have been penalized for low APR scores over the last 10 years. Football and baseball are ineligible for the postseason this year.

Savannah State currently employs two academic advisers to assist student-athletes, but has had up to five in the past. The additional advisers were paid through a grant that the NCAA began offering in 2013 to under-resourced schools that didn’t meet APR benchmarks. Thus far, 64 schools have applied for and received funding.  

North Carolina A&T is another one of those schools. Their football team faced four consecutive seasons of escalating penalties from 2007 to 2011, including scholarship reductions and postseason ineligibility.

“It was a wakeup call for us,” said North Carolina A&T associate athletics director Brian Holloway. “We always had student-athletes’ best interest [in mind], but as a low-resource Division I school, when the NCAA puts in different rules, we’re not always ready and equipped to follow through on their mandates.”

Rod Broadway, who became the head football coach in 2011, called the extent of the penalties “shocking.” He knew the program that had gone 8-36 the four seasons before his arrival had problems, but not to such an extreme. 

“It was a challenge,” Broadway said. “If you look at the University of North Carolina, they have an academic center in the football department that’s budget is more than the whole football budget at a place like A&T. You’re recruiting the same players, but you don't have the same resources to put in front of them.”

North Carolina A&T coach Rod Broadway watches during the first half of an NCAA college football game against North Carolina on Sept. 12, 2015. (AP)

After receiving $277,284 over three years beginning in 2015 from the NCAA, North Carolina A&T bolstered its academic support by hiring specialists who helped student-athletes make their class schedules, assured the players attended their classes and ran a study hall. They also enrolled incoming freshmen in summer courses. 

Since then, the football team has consistently scored well above the APR threshold. 

North Carolina A&T saw results on the field on par with those in the classroom. The Aggies haven’t had a losing season since Broadway’s first year when they finished 5-6. That run includes an undefeated campaign in 2017 and a 967 APR that same year.

This year’s 8-3 Aggies are second in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, just behind a 9-2 Florida A&M team. The last time the Rattlers were ineligible for the postseason was in 2016, but they also received a grant that year to add summer school for incoming student-athletes and enhance academic support services. 

“[HBCUs] will always be at risk because of their lack of resources, but what you've seen is that overall everybody has improved their APR numbers, especially schools that were at the bottom,” White said. “There's always going to be a handful of tremendously under-resourced institutions that are going to face challenges that Howard doesn’t face or Florida A&M doesn’t face.”

Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) with prosperous athletic programs have also increased their scores, but APR obscures racial discrepancies in academic achievement at those schools.

Oklahoma State’s athletic program grossed $88.5 million in revenue in the 2017-18 year, according to a USA Today NCAA finances report. It also employs 15 staff members dedicated to academics and compliance, according to its website.

The Cowboys’ football team has maintained high APR scores while their graduation rates tell a different story.

Over the past five years, the graduation rate of black football players at Oklahoma State has steadily decreased, coming to a meager 38 percent last year. The rate of white football players has gradually increased to 78 percent last year. 

Their APR has risen from a 934 to a 969 over that same period. 

“You’ll see at [PWI] schools that their black athletes are graduating at half the rate of white athletes and that’s not punished,” White said. “The APR has no mechanism to even identify or target racial discrepancies in graduation rates at these Predominantly White Institutions.”

Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder declined to comment for this story.

Louisiana Tech’s football team is experiencing a similar trend. Black football players’ graduation rates have dropped 17 percent since 2016 while white players have steadily graduated around 95 percent over that same span. The team’s APR over that period rose from 934 to 949.

“The more successful the team is athletically, the more likely players are not getting as quality of an education and that may or may not be reflected in the APR, but it's a reality,” said Richard Southall, a professor at the University of South Carolina and the director of the College Sport Research Institute. “That's what the APR is in many ways designed to obfuscate or put a veil over.”

The NCAA will continue to tweak APR requirements as necessary to meet its goal of graduating all student-athletes, according to Paskus. A committee dedicated to evaluating the program is aware of the racial impact of APR, and the association doesn’t regulate academic rigor.

The future of APR is unclear, but HBCUs and other under-resourced institutions remain at risk of being further penalized if the NCAA continues to change its standards.

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