In the last four years, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schools have steadily increased their Academic Progress Rates, a notable feat for a conference composed largely of limited-resource schools.  Though some trouble spots undeniably exist, the improvement is real.

The conference attributes its progress to the leadership of its presidents and chancellors in creating new strategies to work toward academic success. The bedrock of those strategies, Commissioner Dennis Thomas said, is a change in recruiting philosophy, accompanied by a new approach to academic support for student-athletes.

“As a conference, we have really stressed the importance of recruiting student-athletes who have the characteristics for success, talented student-athletes who can do college work,” Thomas said. “I want to really commend the presidents and chancellors for setting the table with higher expectations and holding people accountable for results.”

Through APR, nearly 10,000 former student-athletes have returned to campus and earned their degrees in the past eight years. In the process, their teams earned an extra APR point. Of these 9,822 students, almost half (4,505) were in men's basketball, football and baseball.

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Thomas said the conference has emphasized with coaches, athletics directors and others that the road to academic success starts on the recruiting trail: Coaches must recruit academically capable kids who are also talented in their sport. He doesn’t believe the skills are mutually exclusive.

“We don’t buy into that concept,” Thomas said. “The facts are that there are plenty of institutions who recruit talented student-athletes who also do well academically. They have winning records, and they win championships. These are not unchartered waters. “We’re not going to make excuses.”

In addition to being more selective in recruiting, MEAC schools have benefited by paying special attention to academic support in athletics. In some cases, connecting academic support in athletics to the total university support system helped support student-athletes and created more accountability outside athletics.

Morgan State athletics director Floyd Kerr said that facilitating broad-based participation in the academic success of student-athletes – including the president’s office, student affairs, academic affairs, coaches, athletics and the student-athletes themselves – builds an atmosphere of commitment to academic performance. Creating that culture on Morgan State’s campus was critical to the improvement that school has experienced.

While MEAC schools have definitely improved, the data reveal areas of concern. Several schools have teams in the penalty structure, and some will be ineligible for postseason in 2012-13. As the standards rise over the next several years (and with the requirement for postseason eligibility increasing from a 900 APR to a 930), the number of teams at risk for postseason ineligibility and penalties could increase if the improvement is not sustained.

Thomas acknowledged that while the improvement is good news, the MEAC schools are not complacent.

“This is not a destination. This is a continuous process,” he said. “When it comes to improving student-athletes’ (academic success), I don’t think you can ever say that we’ve completed our task. Every year you have a new group coming in and striving to do their best academically. We had that prior to APR, and we will continue to have that.”

Kerr said the coaches of his two most academically troubled programs – men’s basketball and football – took the initiative to create an individualized academic action plan specific to their teams. The individual plans supplement the school’s overall academic improvement plan, a document the NCAA requires for any school with a team below 925.

“The coaches saw the need [for these plans]. They identified and addressed the problem when we went through our analysis for the overall improvement plan,” Kerr said. “Based on the activities inside the team, to change the team culture and emphasize the commitment to academics, they knew there were things they could control.”

Some of those include weekly checks of class notes, weekly individual counseling sessions and restructuring daily activities to emphasize the importance of success in the classroom.

“We expect academic wins as well as athletics wins,” Kerr said. “We integrate academic activities into the student-athletes’ weekly plans that parallel the athletics obligations. They have academic obligations outside the classroom that are tied to the team. When this was implemented, it started to change the culture within the teams.”

The culture change was successful enough that Kerr now encourages all his coaches to do the same, regardless of their academic performance.

Thomas said that while some approaches may work at one institution (like Morgan State), he recommended each institution in need of academic improvement study what might help and map a strategy based on their own goals and mission.

“Sometimes you can be successful if you try to replicate what other places have done,” he said. “But every school has a different mission and a different way of doing things. You can’t just say they need to do this and this and this. Every conference is different. Every institution is different.”

Jan Blade, faculty athletics representative at MEAC-member Delaware State, serves as a member of the Committee on Academic Performance. Blade, who provides the voice of Historically Black Colleges and Universities to the committee, must espouse a holistic perspective as a committee member.

“We talk about resources quite a bit [during CAP meetings],” she said. “I think we [at limited-resource schools] have to remember we have to do with what we have and make the most of it. We have to find resources that are not being used on campus. And we have to find ways to get the academic side more involved with the athletics side.”

Both Thomas in the MEAC office and Kerr on Morgan State’s campus know the pursuit of academic success never ends, but a change in the priorities of the program can set the table for a higher level of performance than in the past.

“As new kids come into our program, they walk right into the new culture,” Kerr said. “They don’t see the history. They have a fresh start and it becomes the norm.”

The new normal for MEAC schools is simple: successful academics, successful athletics.