Athletes' Graduation Rates Hit Another High, NCAA Says

November 18, 2009

The nation's college athletes continue to graduate at the highest levels since the National Collegiate Athletic Association began calculating the rate eight years ago, according to data released today.

The latest federal graduation rates, the NCAA says, also show that athletes in the biggest college-sports programs continue to graduate at rates higher than those of their nonathlete peers.

Seventy-nine percent of all Division I athletes who entered college from 1999 to 2002 graduated within six years of enrolling, according to the NCAA data. That marks an increase of one percentage point from last year's figures, and an increase of six points from data released eight years ago. It is just shy of the 80-percent goal that the NCAA's former president, Myles Brand, who died in September of cancer, had long advocated.

Men's basketball, which tends to lag behind most other sports in its graduation-success rate, as the NCAA refers to its measure, posted a two-point increase from last year, graduating 64 percent of its players who enrolled from 1999 to 2002.

NCAA officials call the graduation-success rate a "trailing indicator" and have emphasized in recent years that the figures do not yet reflect stricter academic requirements for athletes that the association put in place in 2004. The most recent cohort, for instance, would have had four years under that new system, which penalizes teams for not meeting certain academic benchmarks.

The latest rates are proof that tougher eligibility standards for incoming college athletes, as well as more-stringent requirements on athletes' progress toward their degrees, are gaining traction, said Walter Harrison, chairman of the NCAA's Division I Committee on Academic Performance.

"There's a lot of evidence now that there is a sea change going on culturally in college athletics," Mr. Harrison, who is also president of the University of Hartford, said in a conference call this afternoon. "Academics is a far more important focus for our coaches, our athletics staff, and our athletes than ever before."

Modest Changes

The NCAA uses its own formula to calculate the graduation-success rates of Division I athletes. The figures are different from the graduation rate 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.

For those athletes who entered college in the 2002-3 academic year, the graduation-success rate was 79 percent. (The federal graduation rate for that cohort, by contrast, was 64 percent. The federal rate for the entire student body was 62 percent.)

In the high-profile sports of football, baseball, and men's basketball, the latest graduation-success rates showed modest changes, if any, from data released last year.

In addition to the two-point gain in men's basketball, the sport of baseball showed a slight increase: 69 percent of athletes graduated in six years, compared with 68 percent last year.

Division I-A football teams, which are the largest and most competitive in the nation, showed no change in their 67-percent average graduation-success rate. Division I-AA teams, meanwhile, slipped slightly: 64 percent of their players graduated in six years, compared with 65 percent for the previous cohort.

Sport by Sport

Graduation-success rates vary by sport and by gender. Some women's sports, for instance, had graduation-success rates just shy of 100 percent, while other men's sports graduated fewer than two-thirds of their players.

Among men's sports, lacrosse teams posted the highest graduation-success rates, with 88 percent of their players graduating in six years. Ski teams were second, at 87 percent, followed by water polo, at 86 percent. Among women's teams, ski teams led, with 98 percent of their athletes graduating in six years, followed by gymnastics (94 percent) and lacrosse (94 percent). Women's bowling, with a graduation-success rate of 74 percent, was the lowest.

Team by Team

NCAA researchers also tracked the graduation-success rates of nearly 5,000 individual teams at 322 Division I institutions. Of the teams that posted the lowest graduation-success rates, many were men's basketball squads: 28 percent of the 312 sports teams that graduated fewer than half of their athletes were in the sport of men's basketball.

Among those men's basketball teams were nearly two dozen programs that competed in the 2009 NCAA tournament. Twenty-three of the 65 institutions whose men's basketball teams advanced to the tournament had graduation-success rates below 50 percent. That included two of the tournament's top seeds, the University of Connecticut (27 percent) and the University of Louisville (38 percent).

Athletes in the sport of football also struggled to graduate. Three programs currently ranked in the Associated Press's top 25 — the University of Texas, Georgia Tech, and the University of Oregon — each had graduation-success rates of 49 percent.

Graduation-success rates for each Division I team are posted on the NCAA's Web site.