Running in Place

October 28, 2010

The graduation rate of Division I athletes remained stagnant for the third straight year, according to the latest figures released Wednesday by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The NCAA uses the Graduation Success Rate (GSR) to measure and report the academic achievement of its athletes. Unlike the federal government’s methodology for determining graduation rates, this calculation does not penalize institutions for students who leave an institution in good academic standing, including those who transfer to other institutions or leave college to play their sport professionally. The GSR also counts incoming transfer students and midyear enrollees, tracking more than 36 percent more Division I athletes than the federal graduation rate does.

The GSR for Division I athletes who began college in 2003 is 79 percent, as it also was for the groups of athletes that began in 2002 and 2001. Though the rate remains stagnant, it matches the highest-ever rate for Division I since the NCAA began using the tweaked methodology nine years ago.

By comparison, the federal graduation rate for Division I athletes who began college in 2003 is 64 percent. Like the latest GSR calculation, this figure is static for the third straight year and remains the highest-ever graduation rate for Division I athletes. It is also higher than the federal graduation rate of all students at Division I institutions, which is 63 percent.

NCAA officials played down the stagnation in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

“Looking at the year-to-year changes is a bit problematic, especially with large numbers [of athletes] like this,” said Walter Harrison, chair of the NCAA Division I Committee on Academic Performance and president of the University of Hartford. “Obviously the better we get, the harder it’ll be to make progress because we’re getting up to rarefied air.… I’d like to see 79 percent improve over time, but I don’t think looking year to year is statistically justified.”

This latest cohort of students judged by the GSR is the first to be subject to all of the NCAA’s recent academic reform efforts. Some of these include the use of the annual Academic Progress Rate system to punish teams, tougher initial eligibility standards, and more stringent progress-toward-degree requirements.

Harrison said he believed these academic reforms partially explain the increased Graduation Success Rate for the men’s revenue sports and, particularly, for black athletes in those sports. For example, the GSR for Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) football players is up three points from last year to 69 percent. Additionally, the GSR for black men’s basketball players is the highest ever at 60 percent, also up three points from last year.

“I find these numbers very encouraging … because these [sports] are the hardest to move,” Harrison said. “We knew the problems would be there and knew reaching success in them would require the greatest amount of work.… But we’ve got a ways to go.”

Despite the good news, however, gains in football and men’s basketball were offset by small declines in several other sports, keeping the overall GSR of Division I athletes the same.

For instance, the rates for men’s cross country, skiing, tennis and water polo all fell by a percentage point or more. On the women’s side, the GSRs for women’s cross country, fencing, field hockey, golf, gymnastics, rifle, skiing and swimming all fell by at least a percentage point. The strange outlier and the biggest loser of the bunch is women’s bowling, whose GSR dramatically fell from 86.4 to 63.3 percent in one year.

"Very small numbers of students in a sport may lead to large changes in single-year rates," wrote Erik Christianson, NCAA spokesman, in an e-mail. "That is what appears to be happening in bowling."

Sport GSR of 2002 Entering Cohort GSR of 2003 Entering Cohort
Baseball 69.9 % 69.6%
Men's Basketball 65.5 % 66.4 %
Women's Basketball 82.8 % 84.8 %
Women's Bowling 86.4 % 63.3 %
Women's Crew 92 % 92 %
Men's Cross Country/Track 74.6 % 72.8 %
Women's Cross Country/Track 85.3 % 82.9 %
Men's Fencing 81 % 100 %
Women's Fencing 100 % 88.5 %
Field Hockey 94.1 % 92.4 %
Football Bowl Subdivision 65.9 % 69.2 %
Football Championship Subdivision 65.7 % 64.7 %
Men's Golf 80.6 % 83.5 %
Women's Golf 89.4 % 87.7 %
Men's Gymnastics 85.7 % 89.5 %
Women's Gymnastics 92.8 % 91.4 %
Men's Ice Hockey 79.2 % 81 %
Women's Ice Hockey 89.8 % 89.7 %
Men's Lacrosse 83 % 88 %
Women's Lacrosse 92.9 % 93.9 %
Men's Rifle 80 % 82.6 %
Women's Rifle 82.1 % 73.1 %
Men's Skiing 85 % 77.8 %
Women's Skiing 95 % 90.9 %
Men's Soccer 77.7 % 77.9 %
Women's Soccer 88.6 87.7 %
Softball 85.7 % 85.4 %
Men's Swimming 81.3 % 84.6 %
Women's Swimming 91.7 % 90.7 %
Men's Tennis 86.5 % 80.1 %
Women's Tennis 88.5 % 89.9 %
Men's Volleyball 67.3 % 72.9 %
Women's Volleyball 89.2 % 86.7 %
Men's Water Polo 85.7 % 80.3 %
Women's Water Polo 91 % 91.4 %
Wrestling 71.8 % 73.4 %
OVERALL 79 % 79 %

Mark Emmert, the NCAA's new president and former president of the University of Washington, cheered the latest set of graduation rates. This is the first formal data release Emmert has presided over since succeeding the late Myles Brand as the new head of the NCAA.

“There’s a lot to celebrate,” Emmert said. “But by no means are we satisfied.”

The NCAA also released the latest graduation rates for its Division II athletes Wednesday. Division II is judged by the Academic Success Rate (ASR), which is similar to Division I’s GSR but also counts non-scholarship athletes, of which there are many in Division II.

The ASR of Division II athletes who began college in 2003 is 73 percent, while the federal graduation rate is 56 percent. Both measurements are up slightly from the previous year.

Division III institutions are not required to submit graduation data about their athletes, separate from their overall student bodies, to the federal government because they do not grant athletic scholarships. Nor does the NCAA now require them to do so. Emmert, however, said that Division III leaders are currently exploring the possibility of calculating a graduation rate and something akin to an ASR for their athletes. There has been criticism of the plan, however, from some institution officials who argue that such academic reporting would be an expensive endeavor.

The NCAA has a comprehensive search engine on its website, which allows the user to explore the GSR of all Division I institutions and the ASR of all Division II institutions. It also offers the capability of searching for the graduation rates of individual teams.

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