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The National Collegiate Athletic Association likes to boast that athletes graduate at rates higher than non-athletes – in some cases, significantly higher. But the tool the NCAA uses to make that assertion -- the Graduation Success Rate, or GSR -- follows a unique formula that factors out athletes who transfer in good academic standing, instead counting them as graduates.

That is not the case with the Federal Graduation Rate, an older measurement required by the government (which is why the NCAA developed the GSR in the first place). But the federal rate counts only full-time, first-time students who graduate from the institution where they began. That means that students who go part-time or take breaks bring down an institution's graduation rate, again making it a less-than-ideal benchmark for comparison, given that all athletes (unlike other students) are required to maintain full course loads.

Enter the Adjusted Graduation Gap, a model that compares athletes’ graduation rates by conference and sport directly to the rates of their non-athlete peers by factoring out part-time students. The annual installment looking at the adjusted gaps for football players was released today by the Collegiate Sport Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“We know that part-time students graduate at a much lower rate, and one of the reasons that we know affects that is that they’re working,” said Richard Southall, an associate professor of sport administration and coordinator of UNC’s Graduate Sport Administration Program. “Instead of saying, ‘Well, athletes graduate at a rate that’s better,’ instead of making just short sound bites, let’s look at the situation and say, ‘Athletes from different sports are different.’ It’s like students at different colleges are different.”

And using the AGG model does paint a different picture. In most athletic conferences, athletes graduate at rates lower than non-athletes; the gap is widest (for the third year in a row) in the Pacific 12 Conference, where football players graduated at rates 27 percentage points lower (in other words, an AGG of -27) compared to full-time male students at those institutions in the 2004-10 cohort, the latest data available.

For the most part, the gaps are largest in the conferences that are most successful athletically. Rounding out the “bottom five” with the starkest rate differences are the Atlantic Coast Conference (-22), the Big Ten Conference (-20), the Western Athletic Conference (-19), and the Southeastern Conference (-18).

The smallest differences were found in the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA, both of which had gaps of -13.

And with this, the third installment of the AGG football report, Southall included averages since the report’s inception. “We see that things aren’t changing significantly one way or another,” he said. While some conference figures have shifted somewhat, he said, that could be the result of realignment.

Adjusted Graduation Gap by Athletic Conference
Football Bowl Series 2012 Adjusted
Graduation Gap
Average AGG
Conference USA -13 -14
Mountain West Conference -13 -18
Big 12 Conference -14 -16
Mid-American Conference -14 -13
Sun Belt Conference -15 -15
Big East Conference -15 -14
Southeastern Conference -18 -18
Western Athletic Conference -19 -19
Big Ten Conference -20 -21
Atlantic Coast Conference -22 -21
Pacific-12 Conference -27 -28
Mean -17 -19
Football Championship Series    
Southwestern Athletic Conference +10 +7
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference +1 +1
Big South Conference -4 -3
Southern Conference -5 -5
Missouri Valley Conference -9 -11
Patriot League -10 -11
Northeast Conference -10 -10
Colonial Athletic Association -11 -11
Ohio Valley Conference -14 -17
Southland Conference -16 -13
Big Sky Conference -17 -19
Mean -8 -9

The only conferences with positive AGGs were the Southwestern Athletic Conference (+10) and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, both of which are made up of historically black colleges in their respective regions.

For the first time, the report also compared AGGs of black and white football players at Division I institutions. The gaps range from +10 and +7 for black and white players, respectively, in the SWAC, to -34 and -17 in the Pac-12.

“It’s three times more likely that black football players [in the Football Bowl Series conferences] don’t graduate at that same rate” as black non-athletes, Southall said. “We haven’t done enough long-term research to be able to say why this is occurring. All we know is you can see the gaps are much larger at high-performing conferences.”

The NCAA said in a statement that "there is no evidence that any part-time bias exists in graduation rates, and this approach does not account for the wide variety of campuses and types of students at those campuses."

"This so-called study is simply a hypothetical exercise. The only fair comparison is with actual full-time students," the statement said. "Both the NCAA Graduation Success Rate and the federal graduation rate count actual students and already allow for part-time behavior with their six-year graduation windows. Adjustment for student demographics and incoming academic characteristics would be more realistic and useful. An even better approach would be for the federal graduation rate to track transfer students, like the NCAA GSR, because the GSR includes 35 percent more students in its calculation and is more accurate."

Southall doesn’t believe one graduate rate measurement tool is superior to any other – they measure different things, he says. But he argues that this more direct comparison to the general student population’s graduation rates raises a number of questions regarding NCAA and institutional policies.

The special admissions practices at some institutions, for instance, could be bringing in athletes who are not prepared to be full-time students – much less while spending 40 or 50 hours a week training for, practicing for and competing in football. That same responsibility makes it ostensibly more difficult to juggle a full-time course load, yet athletes must continually satisfy progress-toward-degree rules that require them to earn at least six credit hours each term and meet minimum grade point averages.

“If you have an athlete that is a special admit and he is also working” for his sport, Southall said, “and you’re trying to fit him into the model of having to make progress toward a degree like other full-time students – most of those full-time students, they’re not even working a part-time job, [much less] working a demanding, grueling 40- to 50-hour-per-week job."

As the report says, “While Division I football players have access to expensive academic-support services, study halls and an army of tutors, there are only 24 hours in a day.”

The AGG “represents a more modern picture of the retention and attrition pattern of students in today’s higher education,” said Gerald S. Gurney, an assistant professor of adult and higher education at the University of Oklahoma and a longtime academic administrator in Oklahoma’s athletics department who has suggested through his research that many athletes are not academically prepared for college.

“The GSR is a misleading graduation rate designed to put athletes in the best light,” Gurney said. “I think the NCAA is determined to graduate athletes at any cost, regardless of the quality of education they’re getting. And that leads to major clustering [of athletes in certain majors] and devalued degrees.”

Southall suggested the progress-to-degree rules might have contributed to the academic scandal that recently unfolded at his own institution, where athletes appear to have clustered in no-show courses in which they received passing grades for doing little work with virtually no faculty oversight.

“They’re trying to stay eligible, and they’re having to fulfill progress-to-degree requirements that may be unrealistic,” he said. “But we have this whole mythology of the student-athlete.”

Gurney and others regret that Southall does not calculate AGGs on an institutional basis, to see which colleges have the largest gaps. That would make more clear, for instance, the link between special admissions and graduation gaps. But it wouldn’t provide large enough samples to produce statistically accurate and significant findings, Southall said.

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