NCAA graduation rates slowly rise in D-1
Each spring, graduation and commencement ceremonies are held by colleges and universities throughout the United States.
And each spring, thousands upon thousands of students take “the walk” and receive their diplomas.
Included in that group of graduating students are the student-athletes, who, although graduating in smaller numbers, actually graduate at a higher percentage than most students.
The numbers are a bit deceiving, however.
Yes, student-athletes graduate at a slightly higher percentage than “traditional” students. But there are thousands of students on the campus of a college or university, compared to hundreds of student-athletes.
Although the graduation rates of NCAA student-athletes have been on the rise over the past several years, the number – which varies by race and gender – of those student-athletes who earn their degrees is still fairly low.
Inside the numbers
The most recent data released by the NCAA concerns student-athletes who began college as freshman in 2000.
Of the nearly 18,500 student-athletes to enter as freshman that year, 63 percent graduated within six years.
But more importantly than that number, at least these days, is the graduation success rate (GSR). The GSR combines those first-time freshmen with student-athletes who entered mid-year as well as those who transferred into an institution.
The GSR statistics show that 77 percent of student-athletes earned their degrees within six years, a number 14 points higher than the federal graduation rate.
To further examine the numbers by race and gender, the data indicates that within key subgroups, student-athletes are graduating at a rate higher than the “traditional students.”
In general, black student-athletes graduate at a rate seven points higher than other black students (53 percent to 46 percent). Black male student-athletes graduate at a rate 10 points higher than black male students (49 percent to 39 percent).
White student-athletes graduate three points higher than white students (67 percent to 64 percent), thanks in large part to the fact that white female student athletes graduate at a rate seven points higher than their student body counterparts.
Among the key subgroups, only white male student-athletes graduate at a rate lower than their counterparts (59 percent to 62 percent).
Looking at the rates of student-athletes, 71 percent of women graduated, compared to only 55 percent of males.
In individual sports, baseball players graduated at the lowest rate – only 45 percent.
These are national numbers and percentages, but it is interesting to also look at the percentages at the UA.
Low end of the totem pole
In exchange for scholarships, a college or university is supposed to graduate its student-athletes. Many schools fall woefully short of this ideal.
Over the past several years, the UA has been the worst among Southeastern Conference schools in the percentage of athletes who graduate.
Forty-nine percent of freshman scholarship athletes in 2000 graduated from the UA within six years – 14 percentage points behind the NCAA national average. Despite the fact that nationally, more student-athletes graduate than “traditional” students, the same doesn’t hold true at the UA, where 56 percent of the student body graduates.
These are the students who represent the UA, yet more than half do not walk across the stage and receive a diploma at graduation.
The difference in genders, when it comes to graduation at the UA, is substantial. Sixty-eight percent of women student-athletes graduate, compared to only 29 percent of their male counterparts.
Looking at individual sports, men’s basketball is the lowest, as zero percent graduated from the 2000 freshman class.
This trend has precedence at the UA, however.
Under former basketball coach Nolan Richardson, Arkansas graduated few, if any, players from year to year.
In a 2002 interview with ESPN, Richardson said there are reasons for low graduation rates in basketball, especially for black athletes.
“When you’re talking about the black kid who comes to college, the No. 1 thing in their mind is the NBA,” Richardson said. “And because the window of opportunity is so small, they choose not to graduate simply because they want to have that opportunity. So what happens then is that come the end of March, they won’t even attend classes after that point simply because they are preparing themselves with agents to go on to the next level where they can make a living.”
However, despite the negativity surrounding graduation rates in basketball and other sports at the UA, there is a bright spot.
Legendary Arkansas cross country and track and field coach John McDonnell has a solid track record when it comes to academics and student-athletes.
“I had a philosophy that I shared with the guys,” McDonnell said. “I told them ‘don’t try to graduate in four years, do it in five years.’ No rigorous student is running 80 to 100 miles a week and is in the weight room two hours a day. It’s a tough double, and it’s the same with any sport. So I tell them to take their time, just take 12 to 14 hours a semester, make good grades and don’t fail anything. That’s basically what we did. We’ve had plenty of guys graduate in four years, but if it takes five, who cares?”
UA Athletic Director Jeff Long said McDonnell has had great success at combining academics and athletics.
“There are hundreds, probably verging on thousands, that have gone through the program and graduated with their degree,” Long said. “In the end, that’s what we’re about here. Intercollegiate athletics is another branch of higher education. Student-athletes get to come here and pursue their academic and athletic dreams. Ultimately, getting their degree is that academic dream. We’ve had so many compete at this highest level that get to go on from here and compete professionally and pursue that dream as well. It’s a very special thing when you can combine academics and athletics, and John McDonnell has done that very well.”
As good as McDonnell, who is retiring at the end of the outdoor track season, has been, one bright spot doesn’t hide the bigger blemish.
UA Chancellor John A. White believes he has solutions to the problem at Arkansas.
In a 2002 essay, White said the university should only give scholarships to those who want an education.
“We must have the courage to ‘just say no’ to the student-athlete, no matter how gifted athletically, who desires to only play for the Razorbacks and has no interest in obtaining a degree,” White said. “The Razorback program is neither a minor league franchise nor part of a developmental league. It is an integral part of the university and we must never lose sight of that fact.”
White said scholarship money is not being used wisely if the student-athletes are not graduating.
“Admitting a student who is not capable of doing the academic work required and awarding a scholarship (academic or athletic) to a student who does not value education is not good stewardship of the public’s or the institution’s scarce resources,” White said.
White used the case of former Razorback basketball player Joe Johnson as an example. Johnson left Arkansas after two years in 2001, and was drafted by the Boston Celtics with the No. 10 overall pick. Johnson is now a two-time NBA All-Star for the Atlanta Hawks.
“I understand Joe Johnson’s reasons for leaving early,” White said. “However, I am disappointed he did not graduate before pursuing a professional career.”
White said the NBA and the NCAA needed to find a way to keep student-athletes in school, working toward a degree.
“It is time for the NCAA to propose a summit with the NBA to see what can be done to ensure that college players have the opportunity to complete their degrees before joining the professional ranks,” White said. “In addition, shouldn’t NBA teams, out of concern for the general welfare of their players, employ academic advisers to work with players to complete their degrees through a combination of courses taken through distance delivery, at other colleges, and via correspondence courses?”
Since White authored his essay in 2002, the NBA has instilled an age minimum to insure that athletes attend college for at least one semester. There are currently ongoing discussions about raising the age minimum by another year.
White said changing the culture of intercollegiate athletics would be difficult.
It’s always hard to change a culture of winning.
Success in two domains
Winning comes at a cost, and in the world of NCAA athletics, that cost is a diploma.
The teams with the best track records on the field or the hardwood don’t normally have the best record in the classroom.
Take the 2008 BCS National Championship football game, for example.
Both Ohio State and LSU graduate a little more than half of their football players, a low number by any standards. But those numbers aren’t even the worst out of the schools that participated in BCS bowl games. Georgia, Hawaii and Oklahoma graduated just over four out of 10 players.
In a world where very few collegiate athletes go on as professionals in their sports, graduating very few players is a problem.
But there are some schools that have success in the classroom.
Michigan and Penn State both graduate more than 70 percent of their players. Boston College graduates a staggering 93 percent of its football players.
As in football, the graduation numbers are also low in men’s basketball.
The University of Memphis only graduates 30 percent of its players on average. Astonishingly, the number used to be lower before John Calipari arrived as Tigers head coach.
UCLA graduates only 29 percent of its players. But what is a bigger concern is that the school only graduates 20 percent of its black basketball players, as opposed to 100 percent of its white players.
Of the teams in the Elite Eight of the 2008 NCAA Tournament, North Carolina and Xavier have the highest graduation rates. UNC graduates 60 percent of its players, while 67 percent of Xavier’s players leave college with a diploma in hand.
No matter the sport, the problem remains. Graduation rates are low, but schools win championships because of it.
What can be done?
As the numbers and percentages show, graduation rates of NCAA student-athletes are simply not very good.
But there are ways to help fix the problem.
If the NBA decides to push the age limit up another year, it would likely increase graduation rates of basketball players.
If schools only award scholarships to players who plan to graduate from that institution, as White suggested, graduation rates across the board would likely increase.
According to its core purpose statement, the NCAA is supposed to insure that the “educational experience of the student-athletes is paramount.”
Graduating 63 percent of all NCAA student-athletes makes it seem as if education is no longer paramount for collegiate athletics.
“Well, you know what I always said is that anyone that wants to graduate will graduate,” Richardson said to ESPN. “That’s the rate. It’ll always be that rate.”
The trick is finding a way to convince the athletes that graduation is the key to their futures.