Graduation rates for Division I football and men’s basketball teams have exceeded 70 percent for the first time ever, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced  Thursday, but the overall graduation rate for all sports fell one percentage point, to 81 percent.
“We’re not satisfied at a 70 percent mark for football and basketball, but we’re certainly pleased that 7 out of 10 athletes in the highest-profile sports we have are earning their degrees,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a call with reporters. “The coming years will bear even greater fruit.”
The overall graduation rate for Division II athletes, meanwhile, lags behind at 72 percent, a one-point drop from last year.
Seventy-four percent of Division I men’s basketball players who enrolled in college in 2005-6 graduated within six years, up six percentage points from last year. Graduation rates for Football Bowl Series teams rose just one point, to hit 70 percent. But over all, this year’s data show drops in every demographic subgroup, including a decrease from 80 to 76 percent among black female athletes. (The rate for the less athletically prestigious Football Championship Series football teams actually fell, from 72 to 69 percent.)
The Graduation Success Rate is an NCAA-devised tool that measures the proportion of athletes who get their degrees within six years. Unlike the federal graduation rate -- much-disdained by the NCAA -- the GSR counts athletes who transfer in good standing to another institution as graduates, not dropouts. This distinction means GSR rates are consistently higher than the federal ones; this year, the federal rate of 65 percent is 16 percentage points lower than the GSR (last year the difference was 17 points). A lower proportion of non-athletes in this cohort -- 63 percent -- graduated in six years, according to federal data.
And, after a jump of seven percentage points last year in another sport whose comparatively low rates have been a special focus of NCAA officials, the graduation rate for this year’s baseball cohort is back down two percentage points, to 75 percent.
Historically, football and men’s basketball have been the sports with the lowest rates. While officials have said that athletes in those sports are of special concern to the NCAA and in need of targeted support, their teams also bring in the most money for the NCAA and its member institutions and team members are more likely to be “special admits ” -- allowed to enroll under NCAA eligibility standards that may be lower than the college’s own academic standards.
“The institutions in my view that have succeeded are the ones who have put some thought at the Division I level into how to support the demands their athletes face,” said Walt Harrison, president of the University of Hartford and chair of the Division I Committee on Academic Performance, “and making sure they admit students who are capable of doing the work.”
Emmert and Harrison attributed the rise in those sports to the work of coaches, athletic and academic staff who in working with athletes have increased emphasis on classroom success.
“This year, if everything was constant, 1,600 more students graduated than would have graduated in 1995,” Harrison said. “That’s 1,600 lives we have impacted positively, and I think it’s a great tribute to all the people who have worked on this.”
The rates in most sports that saw changes shifted just two to four percentage points, but there were a few outliers. The largest drop was in women’s bowling, whose graduation rate fell from 82 to 61 percent. Men’s and women’s rifle each fell from 83 to 70 percent. Men’s volleyball dropped from 87 to 79 percent, and men’s water polo from 87 to 81 percent. There were no unusually large jumps in rates, with the exception of men’s basketball (up six percentage points).
Last year , after reporting a record-high overall graduation rate of 82 percent, NCAA officials said they expected newly raised academic standards  to bolster that figure even further. Approved in 2011 by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors, the rules began taking effect this academic year.
The minimum Academic Progress Rate, which measures athletes’ classroom progress and retention, increased from 900 to 930; the new minimum indicates that at least half the athletes on a given team are on track to graduate. Teams don’t have to meet that clear-cut minimum yet, though, as this is the first of a two-year phase-in period. For now, teams must make the 900 APR each year or an average 930 over the same 24 months to be eligible for post-season play.
The NCAA also raised the minimum grade point average for incoming freshmen to be eligible to compete to 2.3 in a set of high-school core courses, up from 2.0. That rule takes effect in August 2016.
“Obviously, you put in place a new standard or a new expectation – that takes five years to work its way through the system,” Emmert said. In four or five years, Emmert predicted, the rules will visibly affect the data.
Other studies conducted under an alternative model, the Adjusted Graduation Gap , have countered the NCAA’s claims that athletes graduate at higher rates than non-athletes. When factoring out part-time students, athletes from some sports -- football in particular, and especially in the most successful athletic conferences – graduate at significantly lower rates than their non-athlete peers. (The NCAA says this model is flawed.)
Rates broken down by sport, institution and year are available via a searchable NCAA database .
|Division I Sport||Entering class, 2004-5||Entering class, 2005-6|
|Baseball||77.4 %||75.1 %|
|Men's Basketball||67.7 %||74.1 %|
|Women's Basketball||85.9 %||83.7 %|
|Women's Bowling||81.8 %||61.0 %|
|Women's Crew||91.9 %||94.9 %|
|Men's Cross Country / Track||78.3 %||77.5 %|
|Women's Cross Country / Track||86.1 %||84.3 %|
|Men's Fencing||89.4 %||89.6 %|
|Women's Fencing||94.2 %||93.0 %|
|Women's Field Hockey||95.4 %||93.4 %|
|Football (FBS)||68.6 %||70.1 %|
|Football (FCS)||72.1 %||68.5 %|
|Men's Golf||82.4 %||82.1 %|
|Women's Golf||88.2 %||91.9 %|
|Men's Gymnastics||92.2 %||88.9 %|
|Women's Gymnastics||91.3 %||96.3 %|
|Men's Ice Hockey||88.5 %||82.8 %|
|Women's Ice Hockey||94.1 %||95.7 %|
|Men's Lacrosse||89.3 %||85.5 %|
|Women's Lacrosse||94.5 %||96.2 %|
|Men's Rifle||83.3 %||70.3 %|
|Women's Rifle||83.3 %||70.3 %|
|Men's Skiing||90.5 %||88.5 %|
|Women's Skiing||92.3 %||91.3 %|
|Men's Soccer||82.6 %||79.9 %|
|Women's Soccer||91.1 %||88.2 %|
|Softball||86.7 %||85.8 %|
|Men's Swimming||87.7 %||83.3 %|
|Women's Swimming||91.5 %||92.5 %|
|Men's Tennis||88.3 %||86.0 %|
|Women's Tennis||90.3 %||92.7 %|
|Men's Volleyball||87.2 %||78.5 %|
|Women's Volleyball||90.6 %||89.5 %|
|Men's Water Polo||87.0 %||81.1 %|
|Women's Water Polo||91.6 %||88.6 %|
|Wrestling||74.2 %||73.7 %|
|Men's Overall||76.7 %||75.5 %|
|Women's Overall||89.3 %||88.5 %|