How Do Grad Rates of Division III Athletes Measure Up? Quite Well, NCAA Says

Proud of their focus on academics, folks in Division III have long boasted that athletes at their institutions perform just as well as—if not better than—their fellow students. For the first time, NCAA officials say they now have evidence of that dearly held (but largely unproven) belief.

On Wednesday, the association released preliminary results of a two-year pilot program designed to measure the academic success of Division III athletes. The findings, gleaned from information submitted by 115 of the division’s 444 member institutions, show that athletes graduate at rates higher than other students: Using the federal graduation rate calculated by the Education Department, 66 percent of Division III athletes finished college within six years of enrolling, compared with 63 percent of the overall student body.

But the NCAA prefers to use its own metric to measure graduation rates. Just as it has done with Divisions I and II, the association has calculated an “academic-success rate” for Division III. This method, unlike the federal one, accounts for students who leave an institution while still in good academic standing.

The NCAA applied this calculation to data from the participating colleges. It found that the academic-success rate was 89 percent for Division III athletes: 85 percent for men and 95 percent for women. The sport with the highest rate was women’s ice hockey, with 100 percent; the lowest was men’s ice hockey, with 77 percent. Women’s teams all scored above 90 percent; most men’s teams were above 80 percent.

(A quick note about the sample: While the participating colleges account for only a quarter of the division’s members, officials said they make up a group that is representative of the overall profile of Division III in terms of the proportion of private and public institutions, average enrollment, sports sponsorship, and overall federal student-graduation rates.)

Even though the calculations are similar to those that measure the academic progress of scholarship athletes in Divisions I and II, officials said today that there are key distinctions for Division III.

In Division I, for instance, a failure to meet certain academic standards can bring penalties to an athletic program. And because the NCAA provides specific data for every Division I team, it’s possible to single out struggling programs. But Dan Dutcher, the NCAA’s vice president for Division III, said it’s unlikely the association would break down the data for Division III in such a way—at least not any time soon. And there is no talk of penalties for low-scoring programs.

“The key philosophical goal in Division III is to compare how your student-athletes are doing with your students,” not with students at other institutions that might have different missions or priorities, he said. “When you allow a comparison between institutions, you start to drift away from that goal.”

The association plans to collect a second round of data this spring, and it will issue a final report in the fall. The current findings will be presented to Division III members next week during the NCAA’s annual convention, in San Antonio.

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