NCAA's Graduation Rates Don't Necessarily Prove Success

Ronald Martinez, Getty Images

Bryce Petty (center), quarterback, is one of eight players at Baylor U. this season who have already earned their degrees. 
In recent years, however, the program’s graduation rate as measured by the NCAA has dropped.
October 27, 2014

College athletes are serious students, the National Collegiate Athletic Association says. And every year, it offers up numbers to make its case.

Last year, the association reported that 82 percent of Division I athletes had graduated within a recent six-year period, up from 74 percent a decade before. Last year’s data also showed that a record proportion of football players from major conferences completed college in that time.

"More student-athletes than ever before are earning their college degrees," Mark Emmert, the NCAA's president, said last year. "And we are gratified to see our reform efforts impact the lives of those we serve."

New NCAA "graduation success rates" are expected to be released on Tuesday. But how accurately do they reflect the academic performance of players?

The NCAA says its figures may actually underestimate how many students complete college. But some researchers say the data can be easily manipulated and don’t fully account for dropouts.

Most years, a release about graduation rates causes little stir. But as colleges face increasing calls to justify their sports priorities, many are relying on metrics that attempt to show their success in educating students.

The NCAA’s measure, which it began using in 2003, differs from the way the federal government calculates graduation rates. Unlike the federal metric, the NCAA’s measure does not penalize colleges for students who transfer before completing degrees so long as they leave in good academic standing, still eligible to play.

But critics say colleges can misrepresent the number of eligible transfers.

"It’s very easy to monkey with the eligibility figures so it appears a kid would’ve been eligible but he may or may not have been," says Welch Suggs, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Georgia who has studied athletes’ graduation rates. (Mr. Suggs is also a former reporter for The Chronicle.)

NCAA officials say they take such concerns seriously and have come down hard on programs that have done it.

Most people agree that the NCAA’s rate is a more accurate estimate than the federal number. But if the federal government underestimates how many students complete their degrees, the NCAA makes the opposite mistake—it overestimates, says Woodrow Eckard, a professor of economics at the University of Colorado at Denver.

"The NCAA treats all students that are eligible as if they transfer to another school," he says, "ignoring that a lot of these kids simply drop out."

Legitimate Estimates

There’s no perfect way of tracking what happens to transfers. Many move on to other NCAA colleges, where they become part of their new institution’s cohort. Others go on to different colleges and complete their degrees. But some never finish.

Those who left in good academic standing, with roughly a 2.0 grade-point average or better, represent a sizable chunk of big-time athletes. Of the nearly 115,000 players identified in the association’s 2013 report, about 21,000 had transferred in good standing.

Todd Petr and Tom Paskus, the NCAA’s chief data experts, acknowledge that they have examined data showing that some athletes who leave college eligible for sports do not go on to graduate. But they say that some athletes who are counted as nongraduates in their metric eventually graduate.

Neither colleges nor the NCAA track students "well enough to be able to pin down the real graduation rate," Mr. Petr said. But the NCAA’s longitudinal studies, which include responses from tens of thousands of athletes, give him and Mr. Paskus confidence that the association’s estimates are legitimate.

The studies, Mr. Paskus said in an email, show that the NCAA "does NOT overestimate who graduates from somewhere, but actually slightly underestimates the true student-centered grad rate."

What Moves the Rates?

A variety of factors can affect institutions’ rates. One key factor, colleges say, is coaching turnover. Players often choose a college based on the coaching staff. And when coaches leave, many players follow. If the players don’t leave in good academic standing, colleges’ graduation rates take a hit.

Several coaching changes have contributed to a drop in graduation rates at Baylor University, says Bart Byrd, associate athletic director for student-athlete services.

Over a recent eight-year period, Baylor’s graduation-success rate for football declined the most of any major program, from 88 percent to 67 percent, according to a Chronicle analysis of the most recently available NCAA data.

A change in a program’s stature can also affect rates, Mr. Byrd said. Baylor’s football team finished the 2011 and 2013 seasons ranked in the top 15 in the country, which led some second- and third-string players to transfer, seeking more playing time.

Another factor, Mr. Byrd says, is that the NCAA has become more lenient with waivers, allowing players to avoid losing a year of eligibility when they transfer. That leniency, he says, has encouraged some players to leave.

Still, many Baylor players have stayed on track to graduate, and the university expects its football graduation rate to go back up soon.

This season Baylor’s team has eight players who have already earned their degrees, Mr. Byrd said. They include Bryce Petty, the quarterback, who graduated in May with a degree in health-sciences studies.

Just as coaching changes can contribute to declining graduation rates, stability at the top can improve them. After a series of coaching changes in the early 2000s, the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa hired Nick Saban as its head football coach. Since taking over, in 2007, the football graduation rate has climbed steadily.

Last year the Crimson Tide’s six-year rate reached 73 percent. Less than a decade ago, it was 39 percent.

More Resources

Alabama’s rise has helped boost the Southeastern Conference, the Chronicle analysis showed. Over a recent eight-year period, the SEC’s average graduation rate in football increased 25 percent, more than any of the big-five conferences. (The Big Ten, another of the wealthiest leagues, was No. 2.)

In the early 1990s, when Jon Dever, Alabama’s director of academic services for athletics, was hired, the university had just five academic-support staff members, including a secretary, he says. Now it has 15. During the football season, he says, the university hires up to 100 tutors. And its academic facilities for athletes have grown exponentially, from about 2,000 square feet when he started to 40,000 today.

Those resources can help, but Coach Saban wields another stick.

"All players here want to play, and they know they can’t practice or play unless they do what they’re supposed to do in school," he said. "I hope they all want to go to school, but I know they all want to play.

"I can really get our players to do academically what I want them to do," he said, "more easily than what I could get my own kids to do."

That may not always translate into more graduates, he acknowledges. But the nudges help get them closer to their degrees.

Jonah Newman contributed to this article.

Football Programs With the Biggest Swings in Graduation Rates

NCAA graduation rates can fluctuate for many reasons, and critics say they do not always accurately reflect how many players are completing their degrees. But they are the association's best metric for evaluating outcomes.

Below are the biggest movers among top-level football programs over a recent eight-year period, from 1998 to 2006.

Football programs with sharpest declines in graduation rates

Baylor U., 88% in 1998 to 67% in 2006

Kansas State U., 75% in 1998 to 59% in 2006

Indiana U. at Bloomington, 77% in 1998 to 67% in 2006

Vanderbilt U., 93% in 1998 to 82% in 2006

U. of Nebraska at Lincoln, 85% in 1998 to 76% in 2006

Football programs with sharpest increases in graduation rates

U. of Alabama, 39% in 1998 to 73% in 2006

U. of Minnesota-Twin Cities, 41% in 1998 to 75% in 2006

U. of Georgia, 45% in 1998 to 82% in 2006

Michigan State U., 41% in 1998 to 70% in 2006

U. of Kansas, 46% in 1998 to 70% in 2006

Source: National Collegiate Athletic Association