Graduation Rate Grumbling

Unveiling data showing that athletes are getting more degrees, NCAA chief takes college sports' critics to task for ignoring the facts.
November 10, 2006

The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced on Thursday that the overall graduation rate for Division I athletes rose by one percentage point from 2005 to 2006. But given that the association had more or less unveiled those same statistics two months ago, because of its method for reporting the rates, the most revealing aspect of Thursday's teleconference was the level of Myles Brand's frustration with reporters and commentators who contribute to what he called the "constant din that student-athletes are performing poorly" in the classroom.

"They continue to peddle the myth that student-athletes are poor students," Brand, the NCAA's president, said plaintively during the conference call. "I read time and again the mistaken data about student-athlete academic performance , and I want to challenge the media to get the facts right. The data is out there, and there really is no excuse for getting the information wrong."

Brand cited data the NCAA released Thursday showing that 63 percent of scholarship athletes who entered Division I colleges in 1999 had graduated within six years, compared to 61 percent of all students at those institutions. The NCAA also reiterated its September announcement that the association's new way of measuring and reporting academic outcomes, the Graduation Success Rate, showed that 77 percent of eligible athletes had earned degrees in six years. (The association also released, for the first time, the results of its new way of measuring graduation rates in Division II.

The NCAA chief's frustration was palpable and, to some extent, understandable. He believes that the association and its member colleges have received far too little credit for the changes they have made in the NCAA's academic requirements since Brand became president five years ago, which Brand and others argue have changed another reason "gotten campuses to change the climate" and show much greater interest in academic performance.

And Brand is quite right that critics of college sports (as well reporters like this one who report on those critics) have a tendency to paint with an overly broad brush in decrying the academic underpreparation and underperformance of college athletes, given how many of them, particularly those who toil outside the spotlight of the big-time sports at the big-time places, actually do quite well. Brand singled out an assertion in the letter that Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) sent the NCAA in October that "incoming athletes at many universities have lower average SAT scores and high school grades than those of the general student body." Brand cited "internal" NCAA statistics showing that the average SAT score of students at NCAA Division I colleges is 1040, while the average for athletes in Division I is 1090. (Reporters on the call encouraged the association to release a more detailed breakdown of those numbers.)

While critics certainly engage in dangerous hyperbole when they refer to "dumb jocks" or lump all athletes together as underperformers, even the numbers Brand and the association released Thursday undermine the NCAA president's arguments in some ways. Most often, when people perceive academic deficiencies in college sports, they are usually referring to players in the major sports of football and basketball (and sometimes hockey and baseball, depending on the college) at the programs that compete at the NCAA's highest levels.

While the NCAA's numbers do show that athletes in general graduated at a higher rate than other students at their institutions, Division I male athletes in general fell short of other male students (56 vs. 58 percent), and football players (55 percent) and men's basketball players (46 percent) were lower still. And the numbers were even lower at the Division I-A level, the NCAA's top competitive level, where 41 percent of men's basketball players and 42 percent of baseball players earned their degrees in six years. (Granted, those numbers are all generally on the rise, as NCAA officials are rightly quick to note.)

Thomas's letter to the NCAA made that point explicitly, singling out football and basketball players.

And it also made another essential point about the potential dangers of comparing the graduation rates of athletes with those of other students, which is that by all accounts, scholarship athletes should be more likely than their non-athlete peers to graduate, because they get significantly more academic support and, most importantly, have their educations largely paid for, eliminating the largest single reason why students drop out, or at least stop out, of college. In underscoring the lower graduation rates of high-profile athletes, Thomas wrote: "These figures understate the gap between the graduation rates of the general student body and athletes, since many regular students fail to graduate for financial reasons, which is not an issue for athletes on full scholarships."

Sports officials and other advocates for athletes tend to reply that athletes are also under tremendous time and other pressures, given that their teams are often the equivalent of full-time jobs. That's often true, but so too is the assertion by some critics that athletes at some colleges are likelier than other students to be clustered in a handful of (often less rigorous) majors. And that doesn't even consider the argument that the NCAA's new academic standards, by punishing teams and colleges financially and otherwise when athletes fail to make progress toward a degree, may subtly encourage coaches, academic advisers and sports officials to nudge players along the academic path of least resistance.

This is not a debate that's likely to be resolved any time soon. But Brand's frustrations, even to the extent that they accurately identify broad-brush overreaching, are unlikely to persuade critics that at least in some sports, at some levels, significant problems exist.


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