UAB’s plan to improve academic performance of student athletes is already bearing fruit: Each of the university’s 16 programs received a 925 or above for fall 2007 in the NCAA’s APR (Academic Progress Rate), and seven of those earned perfect scores of 1,000. Preliminary projections for spring/summer 2008 (scores for those terms are calculated together by the NCAA) look positive as well, based on spring grades to date.

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Still, attention was focused this week on the release of the report for the previous four-year rolling average that revealed unsatisfactory numbers for UAB, with six teams falling below the 925 score.

Football, men’s golf and men’s basketball received scholarship reductions. Women’s basketball, men’s soccer and men’s tennis were put on notice that reductions could occur next year if scores do not improve.

“We have been watching these numbers carefully and put together a comprehensive plan in the fall to address this,” said AD Brian Mackin. “Because the APR is based on a four-year rolling average, we knew it would take some time to turn the situation around, but I am confident we are heading in the right direction.”

“Our athletics director and coaching staff know that I expect all UAB teams to meet or exceed the 925 mark and that acceptable performance in academics will be the No. 1 factor in retaining staff or extending a coaching contract,” said President Carol Garrison. “The current numbers are totally unacceptable. But we have made real progress during the past two years.”

Mackin emphasized the importance of improving academic performance in the press conference announcing his selection as athletics director (in February 2007) and outlined some of his goals in an Aug. 13, 2007, story (Academics is Brian Mackin’s top athletic priority) in the UAB Reporter. “I knew coming in we had to go in and see where we were as a program academically, and … evaluate what needs to be done to improve our academic standards,” he said then of his five-year plan. “We’re looking at every aspect of the academic element of the athletics department and we’re going to improve that.”

As part of the improvement plan, a reconstituted and very active Academic Reform Group, led by senior leadership in the athletics department, evaluated each stage of academic progress, from a student’s initial eligibility through their senior year, and created responses to factors that were undermining student progress.

The physical and operational enhancements to academic support include:
• An expanded, much-enhanced academic center with additional computers plus math and science labs. (Completing this project was the No. 1 fund-raising priority for athletics.)
• Additional advisors and support staff for counseling
• Focused services for students with learning disabilities
• An associate athletics director for academics to manage these and other components.

The goals also have teeth:
• Requiring athletes to meet with academic advisors,
• Mandating tutoring in certain circumstances,
• Reviewing attendance and grades with counselors in bi-weekly meetings,
• Refusing transfer releases to students academically ineligible to play, and
• Withdrawing financial support for ineligible players, among other safeguards.

“All of this has been accomplished while paying careful attention to our budgetary goals,” Garrison noted.

She added that when the first APR report was released in 2005, the first three semesters’ data figured into the rolling four-year average were retrospective, “so institutions were almost midway into that four-year snapshot before we knew where we stood. We had been focused on graduation rates, where we were meeting with considerable success. In fact, we received the 2002 USA Today-NCAA Academic Achievement Award for the highest percentage difference between graduation rates for athletes compared to the general student body. We also received the 2002 USA Today-NCAA Academic Achievement Award for the most improved graduation rate among athletes.”

Mackin noted that coaching changes in football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and volleyball, impacted the APR, as some student-athletes left school or elected to transfer. The current coaches, he said, have all been charged with the mandate to address academic performance as their first priority.