NCAA Football Grad Rates at All-Time High, but Top Schools Falter
By Steve Wieberg, USA TODAY
The NCAA delivered some encouraging off-the-field news for major-college football Wednesday: Player graduation rates improved by three points in the past year, to an all-time high of 69%.
The rate for black players, a longtime concern, jumped five points to 61% of those who entered school in 2003, the association's latest study showed.
But the annual academic scorecard was less flattering to many of the sport's top-tier programs. Seven of the top 10 — including No. 1 Auburn, No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Boise State — and 16 of the top 25 in the current Bowl Championship Series standings fell beneath the sport's four-year average. Oklahoma and Arizona graduated fewer than half of their players.
The numbers also were low in the other marquee college sport, men's basketball, where three of last season's eight NCAA regional finalists and more than one in five programs overall had four-year rates beneath 50%.
Those multi-year averages count players who arrived on campus from 2000-2003, giving them six years to earn degrees.
Largely, the association said, schools in Division I do a good job of graduating their athletes. Nearly four of every five — 79% — who arrived on campus in that four-year period, obtained degrees, its study found. That matches the high hit a year ago.
Football and men's basketball have made gains in the nine years the NCAA has tracked athletes through their respective schools. Black athletes, in particular, have shown improvement, with the graduation success rate (GSR) of African-American basketball players up three points since last year and now at 60% for the first time.
New NCAA president Mark Emmert said the association realized a number of years ago that there would be "significant challenges" in trying to improve the GSRs of African-American student athletes, especially in football and basketball, but the numbers show a positive trend.
"The fact that we've had improvements year after year is very encouraging," Emmert said.
Overall, the graduation success rates for African-American student-athletes and African-American male student-athletes have climbed eight points in nine years, to 64% and 59%, respectively.
"Our work toward enhancing the opportunities for student-athletes to be successful academically isn't finished, but we continue to make progress," Emmert said. "Our student-athletes are engaged on their campuses, they are competing hard in all that they do, and they are achieving important successes on and off the field and court."
Amy Perko, executive director of the watchdog Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said the survey "reinforces the need to raise the bar for postseason eligibility" based on academic standing.
"The vast majority of teams are meeting their obligation and the commission believes the opportunity for postseason play needs to be reserved for those teams," she said.
The latest incoming class of athletes tracked in the study was the first to be subject to all of the association's recent academic reforms, including toughened progress-toward-degree requirements and an emphasis on high school "core" academic courses for initial eligibility. The NCAA also got schools' attention with a new Academic Progress Rate (APR), which measures how well their teams retain players, keep them academically eligible and ultimately graduate them.
"In many ways, our work has just begun," said University of Hartford president Walt Harrison, who heads the NCAA's Committee on Academic Performance. "As the culture of academic reform grows stronger each year, we will see more and more improvement."
Still, football and basketball, along with baseball, continue to lag behind the 15 other men's sports and 18 women's sports in the analysis. Over four years, men's basketball players across Division I graduated at a 65% rate. In football's top-level Bowl Subdivision, it was 67%. And in baseball, 70%.
Atop the BCS standings, Auburn and Oregon graduated a respective 63% and 54% of their players over the four years. At Boise State, it was 65%. At Michigan State, 55%.
In men's basketball, 72 of the 327 Division I programs in the study saw fewer than half their players earn diplomas — including 2010 regional finalists Tennessee (40%), Kansas State (40%) and Kentucky (44%).
Harrison pointed to what he called, "a complex set of circumstances" affecting the revenue sports of football and men's basketball that have continually needed to be addressed since acadmic reform efforts began.
"We knew those students in men's basketball and football were the least prepared for the rigors of a college education," he said. "We knew the academic (emphasis) would be challenging. A lot of people didn't think it was the right approach, a lot of vociferous people. So seeing that change has come is gratifying."
Also among the NCAA findings:
— One in eight Division I baseball programs came in under 50%.
— Schools doing the best job of graduating all their athletes over the four-year stretch were Colgate (100%) and Notre Dame (99%).
— Schools doing the worst job were Division I newcomer Utah Valley State (31%) and Chicago State (32%).
— National champions, by and large, looked good. The last two in football, Alabama and Florida, hit the major-college average of 67% over four years. The last two in men's basketball, Duke and Carolina, graduated a respective 83% and 88%.
In women's basketball, meanwhile, two-time defending champion Connecticut (92%) was one of a dozen of last season's Sweet 16 qualifiers with four-year rates of better than 90%.
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