U athletes ahead of curve

Than Tibbetts

The University’s student-athletes are performing better than the national averages under the NCAA’s new academic progress rate standard, according to the first data released Monday.

Under the new progress rate system, the University’s athletics teams scored an average of 965, which was better than the Division I average of 948. The University’s score is good enough for fifth place among the 11 Big Ten conference institutions.

Athletics teams could face penalties next year if their progress rate score is below 925. The cutoff score of 925 is intended to reflect a graduation rate of 50 percent of student-athletes.

Historically, the University has not fared well in graduation-rate rankings. In December, when the NCAA last released graduation data, the University ranked last in the Big Ten conference by graduating 58 percent of its student-athletes.

Athletics Director Joel Maturi said the athletics department’s new progress rate score is a good start.

“We want to get better, though,” he said. “The fact of the matter is none of our teams would’ve been penalized, had there been sanctions this first year.”

The NCAA announced the progress rate in January and will begin to enforce contemporaneous penalties for teams that fail to meet the cutoff progress rate score of 925 in the 2005-06 academic year.

Contemporaneous penalties prevent teams from replacing the athletics scholarship of student-athletes who leave an institution – and would not have been academically eligible had they returned – for one year.

Nationwide, approximately 400 teams could face penalties next year, and 51 percent of NCAA institutions have at least one team in jeopardy of being penalized, according to the NCAA.

The old standard for academic progress was an institution’s graduation rates. University officials said graduation rates do not paint an accurate picture of the athletics department’s academic progress.

Maturi acknowledged graduation rates have not been as good at the University, but he said the progress rate is a more realistic and immediate evaluation of the program.

“It takes into consideration transfers and people who leave school for different reasons,” he said. “We’ve always said that that’s one of the reasons our graduation rate isn’t what we’d like it to be.”

Under the current graduation-rate system, students who leave the University but are academically eligible do not count toward the University’s graduation rate. The current graduation data is also based on students who were freshmen in the 1997-98 academic year.

Mike Lockrem, director of the athletics department’s media relations, said the new data is the first that is reflective of the combined athletics department. The men’s and women’s athletics departments were separate until July 2002. The merged department is not reflected in the University’s most recent graduation-rate data.

The two University teams that scored the lowest were the football and men’s basketball teams, with scores of 923 and 886, respectively. Although lower than the cutoff, the teams’ scores are still within the “confidence boundary,” similar to a margin of error, and would not be subject to penalties at this time.

But the University is not alone. Nationwide, men’s basketball and football, with baseball, accounted for the majority of teams that potentially could have been penalized this year.

The NCAA is not penalizing teams this year, to provide a warning to underperforming schools and allow colleges and universities time to adjust their academic policies.

The University’s softball and women’s basketball, golf and tennis teams all earned perfect progress rate scores.