Record NCAA Graduation Rates Don't Tell The Whole Story

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Nearing the end of a year marked by scandal and scrutiny, the NCAA finally had some good news to share.

The NCAA received headline kudos coast to coast in October, but the student-athlete graduation news isn't all good, says one researcher. (Image © Morgan Lane Studios/ NCAA received headline kudos coast to coast in October, but the student-athlete graduation news isn't all good, says one researcher. (Image © Morgan Lane Studios/

Nearing the end of a year marked by scandal and scrutiny, the NCAA finally had some good news to share. Thus, late-October headlines from coast to coast read, "NCAA graduation rates hit all-time high."

Eighty-two percent of freshman athletes who entered school in 2004-05 earned degrees within six years, according to the NCAA's Graduation Success Rate, which unlike graduation rates recognized by the U.S. Department of Education takes into account student-athletes who transfer from a school but remain on track to graduate somewhere else. The report also indicated that the four-year graduation rate hit 80 percent for the first time ever. Meanwhile, the traditionally lower Federal Graduation Rate hit 65 percent, a record high for athletes, compared with 63 percent for all other college students.

But Richard Southall, associate professor of sport management at the University of North Carolina and director of the College Sport Research Institute, read the headlines and saw more spin than substance. "In today's age of Twitter, everybody wants a simple headline, and the NCAA supplies it," Southall says. "They say, 'Athletes graduate at a higher rate,' and everybody can feel good about it, because, after all, that's what we really want."

The numbers are often more nuanced than what is reported in the mainstream media, Southall says.

According to the CSRI's second annual Adjusted Graduation Gap report for Division I men's and women's basketball, released Dec. 7, when a comparison is made between full-time student-athletes and full-time members of the general student body (the NCAA's GSR numbers don't filter out part-time students), it can be said that men's basketball players in major conferences are graduating at a much lower rate than their male cohorts and that the gap between the two rates has grown since the AGG report debuted last year.

The overall gap between Division I men's basketball players and the general full-time male student body is once again sizable (with the former group's graduation rate lagging by 20.6 percentage points), the new report states. Moreover, the gap for student-athletes in major conferences (a negative 32.4 percentage points) increased almost two points from the initial 2010 report's benchmark (a negative 30.8). The 2011 AGG for Division I women's basketball players (negative 9.4) is only slightly greater than last year's AGG (negative 8.9). The AGG for women competing in major conferences remained unchanged (at negative 14.6).

Last September, the CSRI released its second AGG report on football, and while the overall negative adjusted graduation gap of 13 points between Division I players and the full-time male student body actually shrank by nearly a full percentage point compared to the 2010 number (negative 13.9), the gap for players in the Football Bowl Subdivision increased from a negative 18.5 to a negative 19.7.

So when Southall reads news accounts that "athletes graduate at a higher rate than the general student body," he's often compelled to call or e-mail the offending media outlet to try to set the record straight. "You cannot make that statement, because the Graduation Success Rate is not the same metric as is used for the general student population," Southall says. "But reporters do it all the time. They write it and say, 'Well, they said this.' And so reporters confuse the GSR and the FGR just like the general public does."

CSRI reports focused on the two most prominent college sports point out another way in which numbers released by the NCAA are favorably skewed. "They aggregate all athletes together," Southall says, "and the fact of the matter is that when looking at the demographic profile of tennis and golf and lacrosse and soccer, those are much more highly qualified students than most football or men's basketball players." (The NCAA's record numbers may also be explained, in part, by the fact that Ivy League schools, which don't award scholarships, were factored into the mix for the first time.)

When asked if the NCAA numbers don't at least indicate improvement, Southall hesitates. "This is a very complex situation that doesn't really have clear-cut villains or clear-cut heroes," he says. "And to say things are going in the right direction, I guess you have to define for me what that means. Does that mean that the numbers are higher? Well, yeah. The numbers are probably higher. Are we doing a better job of educating athletes? I don't know."

Neither does Jason Lanter, a Kutztown University psychology professor and current president of The Drake Group, an academic-integrity advocacy organization that counts educational disclosure among its founding principles. "Without looking at disclosure, without looking at the idea of transparency and what's really going on with the education, we don't know what type of education these athletes are really getting," Lanter says. "Are they being steered toward certain courses, majors, faculty? Are they really having educational freedom to choose what they want to do?"

Clustering, a term academics use to describe situations in which 25 percent or more of a student-athlete population is pursuing the same major, has jumped in the past five years, according to Lanter. "Personally, I don't have a problem with certain student groups selecting certain majors, assuming they do it because they're truly interested in the major," he says. "But are they being routed toward a certain major and taking certain courses just because they're easy? We really need to look at the academic freedom and integrity of the athletes and detail the rigor associated with the academic programs in which they're involved."

Southall, meanwhile, intends to further test the rigor used to come up with the NCAA's preferred graduation statistics.

"Most often, the Graduation Success Rate is about 20 percentage points higher than the Federal Graduation Rate. And the NCAA says, 'Well, that's because in the GSR, you're not penalized for an athlete who leaves school in good academic standing,'" Southall says. "Research that we're going to start this year will compare transfer and dropout rates of athletes to the general student population. My question is do athletes transfer at a higher rate than the general student body? If they don't, then you shouldn't take those athletes out of the calculation - except that it makes it look better."

The working title of a book Southall intends to have published in the coming years is Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain. "When the Wizard of Oz gave the Scarecrow his diploma, and the Scarecrow starts talking about the square root of an isosceles triangle, he actually misstates the Pythagorean Theorem," he says. "It's satire. Just because you have a degree doesn't mean you received an education."

Unfortunately, the analogy applies all too well to today's college student-athletes. "Just because we graduate somebody does not mean that they have been given an opportunity for an education equal to that of a regular student," says Southall. "If we just want to get players into some major to keep them eligible, we're not necessarily putting them in a degree that's going to really position them to be competitive in the marketplace."

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