Athletes in Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association graduate at rates comparable to or greater than those of other students, according to the first major assessment of their academic performance.
Released Thursday by the NCAA, results  from a representative, division-wide sample of 115 institutions show that 66 percent of athletes who enrolled as freshmen in 2003 graduated within six years. This is comparable to the 65 percent graduation rate for all students at the 444 Division III member institutions. These figures flowed from a two-year pilot program, authorized by the division’s Presidents Council, to measure the academic performance of its athletes.
Unlike Divisions I and II, Division III bars its member institutions from offering athletic scholarships. As a result, the division’s member institutions are not required to submit separate graduation-rate data for their athletes to the federal government. Further, there have not been comprehensive data to show how these athletes perform academically in comparison to their student body counterparts.
Some Division III officials traditionally argue that their institutions do not need to track such data because, without the potentially corrupting influence of athletic scholarships, athletes at their institutions are virtually indistinguishable from their non-athlete peers in their academic performance. In recent years, however, some Division III watchdog groups have questioned whether “the academic performance of student-athletes is, at a minimum, consistent with that of the general student body,” as specified by the division’s philosophy statement . For example, a recent report  by the College Sports Project  reveals a widening academic performance gap between athletes and non-athletes at some Division III institutions.
“Among the reasons for doing this is to prove that what we say in our platform is true,” Jim Harris, chair of the Division III Presidents Council and president of Widener University, said in a NCAA news release.
The academic reporting pilot program has its critics, though. At last year’s NCAA convention, the presidents of some small, tuition-driven institutions argued that they could not bear the cost  of the additional data collection required.
Dan Dutcher, NCAA Division III vice president, dismissed these criticisms.
“We wanted to determine whether the collection was viable,” Dutcher said in a NCAA news release. “We needed to assess the level of burden and the relevance and utility of the data. What we found is that while this type of reporting does indeed require a time commitment at the institutional level, the value of the data appears to outweigh the burden required to gather them. Year two of the pilot will help make that determination.”
The Division III Presidents Council plans to decide whether “more robust reporting” is needed “in the long term” after the second year of the pilot is finished. Data on the second year are not expected until October 2011, the council’s next meeting.