NCAA Says Its Graduation Rates Hit Record High, But Important Questions Remain


Jonathon Franklin

NCAAThe rate of NCAA Division I athletes graduating within six years of enrolling in college hit a record high in the latest years studied, with 82 percent of athletes who entered college in 2006 graduating. The graduation rate for athletes who enrolled during the four-year period from 2003 to 2006 reached 81 percent, another NCAA record. The NCAA recorded two other record-highs as well, from football players in the Football Bowl Subdivision (71 percent) and African-American men’s basketball players (68 percent).

Those rates are measured by the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate, which takes into account athletes who transfer. The federal graduation rate, which can penalize schools for transfers, found that 65 percent of athletes graduated on time, consistent with previous years. According to the NCAA release, that’s still higher than the 64 percent rate for student populations as a whole, and with the exception of white males, every athlete demographic graduates at higher rates than their peers. In even more good news for the NCAA, it’s top schools in its lowest-performing sports — football and men’s basketball — also posted strong numbers. According to ESPN, only one of the 10 teams that participated in the men’s and women’s Final Fours and the BCS National Championship Game in football finished with a graduation rate below 70 percent.

The NCAA has undertaken academic reforms in recent years, instituting an Academic Progress Rate (APR) to measure athletic programs’ academic success. The APR measures individual athlete achievement on a team-wide basis over rolling four-year periods — teams accrue points for players remaining in good academic standing, returning to school, and ultimately graduating — and failing to maintain an APR score equivalent to a 50 percent graduation rate can lead to penalties, including scholarship reductions and bans on postseason play. The NCAA has also increased standards for incoming athletes, though those were not in place for the group measured by these numbers.

Still, the graduation rates and the NCAA as a whole raise some important questions.

The first is whether the NCAA or the federal rates provide an accurate picture of the situation. The NCAA developed its own measure because the federal numbers have obvious limitations — they don’t address transfers, which are common in college sports, or the fact that many players leave college early for professional sports even though they are in good academic standing. The NCAA’s measure, though, has its own limitations, in that no similar measure exists for the general student population.

That’s why the College Sports Research Institute developed a measure called the Aggregate Graduation Gap, which seeks to address those limitations. When the CSRI studied football players, it found that the gap between them and general student populations was larger than the one shown by federal numbers. Its 2013 report, in fact, showed that Division I football players graduated at a rate 18 percentage points lower than the general population, much larger than the 6-point gap found in the federal numbers (58% football, 64% general). That would seem to suggest that the federal and NCAA numbers aren’t providing an entirely accurate picture of the situation.

A second question is whether graduation rates tell the story at all. One of the issues raised in Schooled, a documentary about college sports released last week, is whether athletes are receiving the same educational opportunities as regular students. “Your challenge is to get them eligible,” former Maryland football player Domonique Foxworth, who now heads the NFL Players Association, said in the film. “It’s not about educating them.” Mary Willingham, an academic adviser who played a big role in uncovering the academic scandal that rocked the University of North Carolina in 2011, echoed that. “The contract is false,” Willingham said of athletic scholarships. “When they leave school, they may have a degree, but they don’t have an education.”

There’s no measure for whether the athletes are receiving an equal education to their peers, and there may be no way to do so.

The NCAA as an organization likes to remind the world about its academic mission, running commercials during its biggest sporting events and bragging about it whenever it gets the chance. These numbers would seem to suggest that it is living up to that promise better than it ever has. It’s certainly great to see graduation numbers increasing, but it’s also worth remembering that the numbers the NCAA released this week only tell part of the story, and that it’s still not clear whether those numbers are giving us the most accurate portrayal of the state of academics in college athletics we could have.