There’s still work to be done, but black student athletes are graduating at their highest rates since graduation rates were first tracked.
“I think this is the best news I’ve seen about academics and athletics since I started working on it” nearly 20 years ago, said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, at the University of Central Florida, and author of Significant Progress for African-American Students , which was released Wednesday.
The study followed students who started college between 1984 and 1998. The "federal graduation rate" of the 1998 cohort of black athletes was 52 percent, up from 35 percent for the 1984 group. The rate counts students as graduates if they receive their degrees within six years of enrolling, and does not count as a graduate a community college transfer who graduates from a four-year institution, or a student who takes more than six-years to graduate.
For black male athletes, the graduation rate jump was from 33 to 48 percent, and for black female athletes it was from 45 to 63 percent.
The study points out that, as of the 1998 cohort, black athletes are graduating at a higher rate than black students generally, who have a rate of 43 percent. The 1998 cohort of black male athletes had a graduation rate of 48 percent, as opposed to 36 percent for black men generally, and black female athletes had a rate of 63 percent, as opposed to 47 percent for black women generally.
White athletes have also crossed the stage more frequently in recent years, but the improvement was far less than that of black athletes. The 1998 cohort of white athletes had a 66 percent graduation rate, up from 59 percent from 1984.
Lapchick said he thinks that the publication of graduation data, which began in 1984, “has been a tremendous impetus for us to get better.” He added that “the scrutiny that has been paid to African-American student athletes has led to [athletic] departments adding resources for student athletes.”
Institutions may have become more academically selective about their athletes, both because the National Collegiate Athletic Association has been ramping up eligibility requirements  since the mid-1980s, and because colleges don’t want to end up with sub-par graduation rates that will bring public scrutiny, Lapchick said.
He added that, if more publicity focused on graduation rates for black students generally, there would likely be more improvement.
Murray Sperber, a former English professor at Indiana University and critic of big time college sports, isn’t convinced by graduation data alone. “The problem with the rates and the discussion is that no one outside the individual schools knows what courses these athletes took and how meaningful these courses were,” he wrote in an e-mail. “There are constant rumors about how schools establish ridiculous courses for athletes, especially black athletes with academic problems. And rumors about schools doing much more of that these days because of the pressure from the NCAA to graduate athletes.”
Sperber advocates greater transparency, and not just of graduation rates. He would like to see colleges disclose, without names attached, the courses that athletes take, and the median grades in those courses. Until then, he said, “various groups can congratulate themselves on the grad rates all day, but they will not prove that the athletes are getting a real education.”
Lapchick said he thinks total transparency would be best, but that “we’re probably a long way from that.”
His study also noted that even black athletes in revenue sports have higher graduation rates than many people might have expected. To examine those numbers, Lapchick used the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate , which counts junior college transfers who graduate, and does not dock an institution for athletes who leave the institution in good academic standing.
Using that system, the graduation rate for the 1998 cohort is 49 percent for black male basketball players; 54 percent for Division I-A black football players; and 71 percent for black female basketball players.
Lapchick said he thinks the " sliding scale"  of initial eligibility  that coaches pushed for, and which was instituted for the class that came in in fall 2003, seems not to have hurt efforts to improve graduation rates.
The sliding scale set up a system whereby an athlete with a low SAT or ACT score can still be eligible to accept a scholarship if they have a certain minimum grade point average in a set of core classes.
According to the NCAA, about 72 percent of the athletes who had SAT’s under 820 -- the prior eligibility cutoff -- but became eligible by virtue of the sliding scale were black. Lapchick said those students apparently did better once in college than many students whose eligibility was determined rigidly by test scores.
“I’m the chair of a graduate program, and we use the GMAT as a guide,” Lapchick said. “I’m very reluctant to rigidly enforce it. Some of our best students are not those that the GMAT predicted.”
Still, there’s a long way to go. Of all the teams in the 2006 men’s and women’s Division I basketball tournaments, 43 percent of the men’s teams had at least a 30 percent disparity in the graduation success rate between black and white athletes. Among women’s teams, 25 percent had at least a 30 percent disparity.
Lapchick does think improvement will continue, though, thanks to the NCAA’s new “academic progress rate,” which measures how many of a given team’s athletes return in good academic standing each semester. “Everybody’s talking about what they have to do with the APR to get it better so they don’t lose scholarships,” Lapchick said.
Of the 65 Division I institutions that will have a scholarship reduction for next year because of poor APR scores, nine are historically black universities, which is significantly more than their representation among all Division I institutions.