Harvard University is paying a high price for its recent run of basketball success: Poor academic progress by players that could threaten its eligibility to play in tournaments if it continues, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
The university’s basketball team, which won or tied for the Ivy League championship the past three seasons, received a grade that was below the average for private colleges in the NCAA’s academic progress report, which monitors the eligibility of players seeking to balance class work with athletics.
Harvard basketball’s academic progress rate has fallen steadily from 995 in the 2007-2008 year when head coach Tommy Amaker arrived. The team’s combined score of 956 for the past four years through 2011-2012 was the lowest in the Ivy League and below the average of 967 for all private colleges, according to NCAA reports released in June.
“Amaker is by any stretch an integral part of the big college basketball world, and it doesn’t surprise me that he’s doing everything he can to improve the quality of the team,” said Steven Roy Goodman, a college admissions counselor in Washington. “Clearly, someone at Harvard has decided it’s an institutional priority to allow him to continue to do the recruiting that he’s doing.”
The NCAA figures are likely to rekindle a debate over the university’s willingness to take risks on athletes, Goodman said.
“Harvard has maintained our high academic standards for all students and student athletes,” said Tim Williamson, a Harvard spokesman, in an e-mailed statement. “The Ivy League has the most rigorous academic requirements of any athletic conference, and we are in full compliance with those standards.”
Amaker, a Duke University star who earlier coached at Seton Hall University and the University of Michigan, came under fire in 2008 after the New York Times reported that he was recruiting players with lower academic profiles. The Ivy League cleared Harvard of any wrongdoing.
With 42 Division I sports teams, more than any other college in the country, Harvard has a highly competitive athletic environment, said John Thelin, an education policy professor at the University of Kentucky. While Ivy League recruits have to meet a conference standard, called the academic index, coaches constantly push for leeway on winning players, he said.
“Wherever you set the standard, they’re going to come close to it,” said Thelin, author of “A History of American Higher Education.” “They’re going to nudge it. There’s going to be some slippage there.”
While Ivy League colleges don’t give athletic scholarships, a recent expansion of Harvard’s financial-aid program may have raised the school’s appeal to top recruits, said Charles Clotfelter, a Duke professor of public policy, economics and law. The enriched policy may let Harvard offer athletes aid packages that rival those of Division I schools that give full sports scholarships, he said.
“A lot of schools make trade-offs,” he said. “Now Harvard is facing the same issues.”
Basketball was one of six Harvard teams that ranked below the national average for their sports among private schools, according to the reports. The others that scored below the average of their peers were men’s skiing, tennis, and wrestling, and women’s skiing and tennis. The Harvard Crimson student newspaper previously reported on the rates.
The NCAA’s academic progress rate monitors athletes’ eligibility for sports teams to determine whether schools can continue participating in sanctioned activities and events. The progress rating system’s purpose is aimed at ensuring that student-athletes stay on pace to graduate, and schools get points for players who maintain their qualifications for sports.
Schools whose ratings drop below certain levels may be subject to limited practices, reduced schedules, and other penalties including coaching suspensions.
The Harvard basketball team’s score for 2011-2012 alone was 925, which might put its NCAA eligibility at risk, according to the athletic association. Currently, teams must keep their four-year average above 900 or their average for the most recent two years above 930 to remain eligible, according to the athletic association. However, the eligibility limit for four-year scores will increase to 930 next year.
Columbia University’s team had the Ivy League’s second-lowest four-year rate for basketball at 981, and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, led with a perfect four-year average of 1,000.
Harvard has calculated that its basketball team will receive a perfect or near-perfect APR for the current academic year, Williamson said.
“This strong score will reaffirm the program’s continued commitment to academic achievement and ensure the team’s continued postseason eligibility,” he said in the statement.
A cheating scandal at Harvard that began last year may have played a role in the downturn in progress rates. About 125 undergraduates came under suspicion when teachers reported finding evidence of inappropriate collaboration on a take-home exam for a government course.
About half of those involved withdrew from school for as long as a year, including basketball co-captains Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey, who took the 2012-2013 year off. Players who take a year off may affect a team’s academic-progress rate, said Stacey Osburn, an NCAA spokeswoman.
Basketball teams are relatively small, and just a few dropouts can skew their APR scores, said Nathan Tublitz, vice-chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a teachers’ group dedicated to reforming college sports.
“If it’s just one or two students dropping out, there may be individual explanations,” said Tublitz, who is also a biology professor at the University of Oregon. “But if students were taking courses that were deemed easy to pad their GPAs or maintain eligibility, then shame on Harvard.”
Harvard’s graduation success rate, which the NCAA also tracks for eligibility for participating in tournaments, was 100 percent for the basketball team in 2011-2012, according to the NCAA.
Harvard’s basketball team gained its third consecutive championship in the eight-college Ivy League in the 2012-2013 season with 20 wins and 10 losses. In the NCAA national tournament, the Crimson, seeded 14th in their bracket, beat No. 3 New Mexico state in their first game, losing in the next round to the University of Arizona.
CBSSports.com ranked Harvard 21st among college basketball teams in its April preseason predictions for the 2013-2014 season. The university has announced plans to build a new basketball arena in Allston, across the Charles River from the main campus in Cambridge.
Established in 1636 and with an endowment valued at $30.7 billion, Harvard is the oldest and richest U.S. university. Alumni of the college include Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein.