For years, coaches and sports officials have griped that the federal graduation rate inaccurately measures the academic performance of college sports programs and teams, because it does not account for the many athletes who transfer in and out. After years of work, the National Collegiate Athletic Association on Monday unveiled its alternative, the Graduation Success Rate. Perhaps not surprisingly, the results make college sports look better.
"Really spectacular," gushed Myles Brand, the NCAA's president, in announcing  that the newly configured rate showed 76 percent of Division I athletes graduating, compared to the comparable federal rate of 62 percent for the classes that entered the institutions from 1995 to 1998.
The NCAA has crafted its Graduation Success Rate as part of a larger effort to change the conversation about the academic performance of athletes. In the last two years, the NCAA has imposed a new set of academic standards  that seek to hold teams and institutions accountable for how well, or not, athletes progress toward a degree.
To do that, it uses two measuring sticks: an "Academic Progress Rate," which measures how many of a given team's athletes return in good academic standing each semester, and the Graduation Success Rate, which is designed to show the proportion of athletes that achieve what the NCAA perceives as the ultimate goal: earning a degree. (Most of the penalties and rewards that the NCAA plans as part of its academic reform effort are tied to the Academic Progress Rate; the Graduation Success Rate will be used mostly for historical context.)
The NCAA has collected the graduation rates of its member colleges' athletes for more than two decades, and has published them for about 15 years, since members of Congress, concerned about academic and other abuses in big-time intercollegiate athletics, enacted the Student-Athlete Right to Know Act. 
The federal graduation rate, which measures the proportion of first-time, full-time freshmen who graduate within six years of entering their original four-year institution (or within three years of entering a community college), is widely derided as a flawed instrument, especially as the number and proportion of students who attend multiple colleges, and the average time students take to earn degrees, have grown. But one recent effort to find a new way to measure the rates for all students has run into political problems,  so changing the federal rate is probably unlikely in the near term.
But NCAA officials have pushed ahead on crafting their own graduation rate, amid increasing complaints that the federal rate understates the academic success of athletes in two ways: by counting as a nongraduate any athlete in good academic standing who leaves a college without graduating (perhaps to transfer to another college in search of more playing time, or to go pro), and by failing to count as graduates those athletes (many from community colleges) who transfer in to an institution and then earn a degree. "The federal rate is inaccurate and unfair," Brand said in a telephone news conference Monday.
"Under the federal methodology, a student-athlete who transfers from one Division I college to another is treated as a nongraduate at the first and is ignored in the calculation at the second even if he or she graduates,“ added Todd Petr, the NCAA's managing director of research. "Similarly, a two-year transfer into a Division I institution is never included in that school’s federal graduation rate calculation. Given the mobility of today’s students, the GSR is simply a more defensible methodology.”
Like the federal rate, the NCAA's new Graduation Success Rate starts with all freshmen who enter a given college in a given year. But it then excludes from the denominator those athletes who leave the institution in good academic standing, and includes in the numerator those who transfer in to the institution and proceed to graduate. Proof that the new rate offers a more complete picture, Brand and Petr said during Monday's news conference, comes in the fact that the new system tracked 35 percent more athletes (91,051 vs. 67,277) than does the federal rate for the same years.
"Clearly, the federal methodology has been missing a significant number of scholarship student-athletes who are competing on NCAA teams,” Petr said. “By the old standards, some 24,000 students who contributed on the field of play were not included in the calculation of the rate. Additionally, more than 16,000 students who left institutions in good academic standing were universally viewed as academic failures.”
By excluding the failures and including students who transferred in, the rates rise over all and, cumulatively, in every Division I sport, as the following table shows.
Division I Graduation Rates for Entering Classes of 1995-98, by Sport
|Men's sports||Grad. Success Rate||Federal Rate||Women's Sports||Grad. Success Rate||Federal Rate|
|Cross country/track||73||59||Cross country/track||83||67|
The rates for the vast majority of individual teams improve over the federal rate, too, NCAA officials said -- three-quarters of all teams had higher Graduation Success Rates than federal graduation rates in 1995-98, according to the statistics released Monday. (The association plans to release overall Graduation Success Rates by institution, along with the latest college by college outcomes on the federal graduation rate, next month.) For a snapshot at individual squads, here is a look at how the basketball and football teams fared at the colleges ranked in the USA Today/ESPN Top 25 in men's basketball as of Monday.
|Institution||Grad. Success Rate||Federal Rate||Grad. Success Rate||Federal Rate|
|U. of Connecticut||50||33||71||51|
|U. of Louisville||38||22||47||42|
|U. of Memphis||25||13||61||48|
|U. of Florida||100||64||80||42|
|U. of Texas Austin||25||10||40||31|
|U. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign||100||60||73||58|
|U. of Oklahoma||33||25||51||38|
|U. of Washington||90||67||75||64|
|Michigan State U.||73||64||41||39|
|U. of California Los Angeles||38||31||63||57|
|George Washington U.||55||50||--||--|
|Wake Forest U.||100||60||96||87|
|U. of Maryland College Park||30||25||63||62|
|Indiana U. Bloomington||91||70||77||66|
|North Carolina State U.||78||54||50||39|
|U. of North Carolina Chapel Hill||82||75||64||57|
|U. of Nevada Reno||14||20||56||41|
|U. of Kentucky||33||21||57||40|
|U. of Iowa||39||33||58||53|
|U. of Wisconsin Madison||58||60||67||50|
|Ohio State U.||45||25||54||49|
What would cause a team's rate to drop? It depends on the circumstances, but Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford and chairman of the NCAA's Division I Committee on Academic Performance, which helped draft the new standards, said that if he presided over an institution where the Graduation Success Rate was lower than the federal rate, one of the conclusions it would suggest to him is "that students are transferring in and not graduating."
"Under the federal rate, transfer students are treated as if they never existed," Harrison said. "Now they exist, and you're held accountable for how well they're moving toward graduating."
Of the teams in the above table, only the men's basketball team at the University of Nevada at Reno had a lower Graduation Success Rate than its federal rate. A request for comment from the university's athletics department went unanswered.
Other men's basketball teams that showed declines on the new rate included those at California State University at Fresno (29 percent on the GSR, 33 percent federal), the University of Idaho (35 vs. 43), and East Carolina University (57 vs. 75 percent).
Teams that did not fare well on the new Graduation Success Rate minimized their value because of the outdated nature of the data. The men's athletics director at the University of Texas at Austin, DeLoss Dodds, said that the statistics in Monday's report were "from classes that entered during the years 1995-98," and that today's Longhorns "were attending middle school at that time." He added: "These rates do not reflect the work of our current student-athletes and coaching staffs."
Critics of big-time college sports said they believed it was not a coincidence that teams with declining rates were anomalies amid the overall increases within the NCAA -- and that far fewer colleges would have to explain away poor graduation rates in the future than was true in the past.
"That was the point of the NCAA calculating them their own way," said Murray Sperber, a former English professor at Indiana University who has written widely about academic and financial problems. "For the NCAA, the whole thing has always been an exercise in PR, not in education. The point of the federal rates is to indicate to an applicant and his or her parent(s) the chances of the applicant graduating from the school that the applicant originally enters -- and given six years to graduate. It is an important piece of knowledge for an applicant and his or her parents to consider when applying to a school."
Sperber added: "The NCAA has substituted a rate that is friendly to it -- especially its athletic departments and coaches -- and not as useful for the applicant as the federal rate."