I want to expand on the good news about the academic success of our football student-athletes, shed some light on the bad news, and give an example of a success story.
Today, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released its annual "Keeping Score When It Counts: Assessing the Academic Records of the 2016-2017 Bowl-bound College Football Teams." The report contains the football student-athlete Graduation Success Rate (GSR) and Academic Progress Rate (APR) for the 80 bowl-bound teams. The overall academic progress of college football student-athletes continued apace, while the substantial gap between white and African-American football student-athletes remained wide.
The general football student-athlete GSR for bowl-bound teams is 75 percent, up from 73 percent in 2015. These rates have been consistently rising since the introduction of the concept of GSR. They have been improving for all football student-athletes, both white and African-American. Seventy-nine of the 80 teams participating in a bowl game had at least a 50 percent GSR; also, 79 of the 80 teams met the NCAA's APR.
However, it is the persistently wide gap between white and African-American football student-athletes in this metric that is most troubling; this year it is a stark 19 percent. The average GSR for African-American football student-athletes is 68 percent, up from 66 percent in 2015. The average GSR for white football student-athletes is 87 percent, up from 85 percent in 2015. Thirteen schools (16 percent) had GSRs for African-American football student-athletes that were at least 30 percentage points lower than their rates for white football student-athletes.
Making the Good News Better
First, let's make the good news better. In 2004, the NCAA introduced the APR as part of an academic reform package designed to more accurately measure student-athletes' academic success as well as improve graduation rates at member institutions. The APR holds each team accountable for the success of student-athletes in the classroom and their progress toward graduation. Individual teams are penalized if they fall below an APR score of 930, which is an expected graduation rate of 50 percent of its student-athletes. Schools falling below that can lose scholarships and become ineligible for postseason play.
It is time to raise the bar to the equivalent of a 60 percent graduation rate. While that may have been hard to imagine in 2004, in the last two years only one school (Idaho this year) has been below the 930 score, and only seven have been below it in the last four years combined. Athletes and teams are prepared to compete at the next level; we need institute that now. If the 930 standard were already in place, 71 bowl-bound schools would be at 60 percent or higher. In fact, 62 bowl-bound schools would be at 70 percent or higher.
Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told me, "Now is the time to increase what we ask of our student-athletes. If our teams now average a 75 percent graduation rate, then let's incentivize the schools who are not performing as well as the leaders to step up. You can win big and educate your players."
Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and the University of Washington, which will contend in the College Football Playoff National Championship, all had good academic records. Their respective APR rates were 979, 985, 971 and 974. They graduated 80 percent, 84 percent, 74 percent and 78 percent of all their football student-athletes, respectively. As for their African-American student-athletes, they graduated 74 percent, 81 percent, 64 percent and 71 percent, respectively, while their white football student-athletes graduated at rates of 95 percent, 94 percent, 84 percent and 89 percent, respectively.
The Racial Gap Is More Complex
For almost two decades, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, has been a strong proponent of the need to assure student-athletes to get a real and meaningful education. Reverend Jackson told me, "While there's good news to report about graduation rates for our student athletes, the persistent gap between black and white players is unacceptable. Too many African-American kids are still treated like little more than disposable gridiron gladiators, who entertain in the fall but do not graduate in the spring. We are free but not equal. The country still has much work to do."
How do we fix the persistent gap in graduation rates between African-American and white student-athletes? The problem stems at least in part from the comparatively poor education available in urban and rural schools. While he was Secretary of Education, Duncan consistently addressed this not only for high school and middle school student-athletes but for all students trapped in inferior schools.
But at the college level, our admissions offices need to only admit student-athletes who have a chance to succeed. If they are academically below the levels of other students being admitted, then we have to provide additional academic support.
TIDES recently reported on the lack of football head coaches of color in our D1 Leadership Study. Only 10 percent of FBS head coaches and 34 percent of assistant coaches are of color. Nearly 54 percent of FBS football student-athletes are African-American.
Might African-American student-athletes perform better in class with a coach who looks like them? Let's look at the teams coached by African-Americans in the bowl games.
The overall GSR average is 75 percent. Teams coached by an African-American head coach have an average GSR of 84 percent! Equally noteworthy, the combined graduation rate for the African-American head coaches for African-American student-athletes is 71 percent vs. the 68 percent average for the bowl-bound teams. The argument for diversity goes beyond justice and the moral perspective; diversity is also good for the business of academics and athletics.
How to Turn Around a Program and Make a Bad Situation a Great One
When I see programs struggling with academics and hear fans, boosters and the media say, "This school will never win and do it right academically," I tell them I have seen what can be accomplished with great leadership.
Today's report included this statement: "Stanford, South Carolina, Northwestern, UCF and Wake Forest would have played for the National Championship if there was a college football playoff based on Graduation Success Rates among bowl teams, with UCF and Wake Forest achieving the same GSR. All teams graduated at least 91 percent of all football student-athletes and at least 83 percent of African-American football student-athletes."
UCF was in the house.
When I came to UCF in 2001, they were not even close. I knew that the graduation rates were very poor, and frankly I was glad that UCF's football team was not good enough to be in a bowl game, so I didn't have to report the UCF record in the annual graduation-rate study. But I came to UCF knowing that it had just hired Karl Mooney, one of the best people in the country in terms of academic issues for student-athletes. I knew he would turn it around with the strong support of the president.
Then suddenly, in 2005, UCF was in a bowl game, and therefore, in that year's report with the worst graduation rates and the next-to-worst APR score. The headline in the Orlando Sentinel reported it exactly that way. When I came to campus that morning, I was getting phone calls and emails from people working at UCF saying, "How could you possibly print this?"
Coincidentally, I had a meeting scheduled that afternoon with President John Hitt about other things. We talked about the president's vision for UCF, about our families and about the programs that I was involved with at UCF. He did not mention the study or the Sentinel headline. As I got up to leave, Hitt shook my hand and said, "Thank you for holding our feet to the fire. We are going to get better as a result."
It is 11 years later, and here is what "better" meant.
• Overall UCF Athletics GSR is 93 percent, and we are ranked No. 1 in the nation among FBS public institutions. UCF is tied for No. 6 nationally (with Vanderbilt and Tulane) when you include private institutions. UCF trails only Notre Dame, Stanford, Northwestern, Duke and Boston College.
• UCF's football GSR is 91 percent, which ranks No. 2 in the nation among public institutions. UCF is No. 7 nationally among all FBS schools.
• UCF's APR score is 983, which ranks sixth among all public FBS institutions and No. 11 when you include private institutions.
When a school commits, dramatic changes can take place.
So we have some proposals and ideas for how to make things better, but we also have work to do. But it can be done.
Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the President of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.