Graduation Rates of Football and Men's Basketball Players Reach New Highs, NCAA Says

October 25, 2012

Major-college football and men's basketball players are graduating in record numbers, the NCAA said on Thursday.

Seventy-four percent of Division I men's basketball players and 70 percent of football players in the Football Bowl Subdivision who started college in 2005 completed their degrees within six years of enrolling, according to the NCAA's latest data. This is the first time the rates for both sports—whose athletes traditionally lag those in other sports in classroom performance—have reached or exceeded 70 percent. Despite the gains, however, football and men's basketball continue to hold the lowest graduation rates among Division I sports.

"We are delighted that both have reached 70 percent this year," the NCAA's president, Mark A. Emmert, said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday. "We are not satisfied, but are certainly pleased that seven out of 10 of these athletes are earning degrees."

The NCAA uses its own formula to calculate what it calls the graduation-success rates of Division I athletes. The NCAA's figures are different from the graduation rates calculated by the U.S. Department of Education. The NCAA statistics, unlike the federal ones, do not penalize institutions when athletes transfer to other colleges, as long as they depart in good academic standing.

According to the NCAA formula, 81 percent of all Division I athletes who entered college in 2005 graduated within six years. That figure is one percentage point lower than the six-year graduation-success rate for athletes who entered college the previous year.

Under the federal government's measurement, 65 percent of athletes who entered college in 2005 graduated within six years, compared with 63 percent of the general student body at Division I institutions.

The graduation-success rate for men's basketball players has climbed 18 points in the 11 years since the NCAA started collecting data. But several prominent men's basketball programs are still struggling to graduate their players. The University of Connecticut—which must sit out this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament because of its low scores on another NCAA measure of academic performance, the "academic progress rate"—graduated only 11 percent of its players in the NCAA's latest study of six-year graduation rates. Other programs with low graduation-success rates were the University of Florida (17 percent) and Georgia Tech (18 percent).

At West Virginia University, the graduation-success rate for men's basketball was a perfect 100 percent. That's quite a turnaround for Coach Bob Huggins, who at one point had a zero-percent graduation rate while coaching at the University of Cincinnati.

Many football players are also making progress. The graduation-success rate for that sport is up seven points since 1995. And black athletes have shown significant improvement during that time. African-American athletes in men's basketball and football are graduating at rates that are 21 points and nine points higher, respectively, than the rates for black male athletes in those sports in 1995.

During that span, the graduation-success rate for all Division I African-American athletes increased by 19 points, to 54 percent. According to the most recent data, 49 percent of African-American male athletes were graduating within six years, while 64 percent of African-American female athletes were completing their degrees in that time.

Among demographic groups, most graduation-success rates held the same or decreased by one point for athletes who entered college in 2005, compared to those who entered the year before. The exception was African-American women, whose rate dropped from 80 percent to 76 percent. The NCAA says that change was driven by three-point drops in soccer and volleyball.

Among men's sports for athletes who entered college between 2002 and 2005, gymnastics held the highest graduation-success rate, at 89 percent. Fencing followed at 88 percent, and skiing at 87 percent. Football and men's basketball continued to hold the lowest rates, at 68 percent across those four years.

Among women's sports, lacrosse and field hockey players had the highest graduation-success rates, at 94 percent. Bowling and rifle held the lowest rates among women's teams, at 74 and 78 percent, respectively.

Several institutions with historically low graduation-success rates have seen substantial improvements. Chicago State University's rate has been increasing steadily over the last few years, and this year it jumped seven percentage points to 48 percent.

As a predominantly black university, Chicago State has applied for NCAA funds to help support its athletes. According to Dan J. Schumacher, the university's athletic director, the program has two new full-time academic-support staff positions supported by NCAA grants.

Karen E. Schiferl is a new member of the academic-support team at Chicago State. As associate athletic director for academic services, she believes the university has been taking steps to raise the bar for its athletes' academic performance.

"The entire university has made a concerted effort to make sure that the support was there, systems were in place, to ensure graduation success for our athletes," said Ms. Schiferl. "It is an ongoing effort, and we expect the rates will continue to rise."