Bowl-bound student-athletes getting better in the classroom

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It is good to be able to report that progress is being made in the academic success of our football student-athletes. Although there are still areas in need of improvement, there are milestones that have been achieved in the classroom that deserve to be highlighted.

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 2017-2018 Bowl-bound College Football Teams" report. This year's findings contain the football student-athlete Graduation Success Rate (GSR) and Academic Progress Rate (APR) for the 78 bowl-bound teams. The overall academic progress of college football student-athletes continued showing signs of improvement, while the substantial gap between white and African-American football student-athletes is closing, but remains a significant issue.

The general football student-athlete GSR for bowl-bound teams is 77 percent, which is up from 75 percent in 2016. Since the introduction of the concept of GSR, these rates have been consistently rising year after year. In fact, they have been improving for all football student-athletes, both white and African-American. All 78 teams participating in a bowl game this year had at least a 50 percent GSR and an APR score that met the NCAA's benchmark of 930. This is an improvement from last year where 79 of the 80 teams achieved these two feats.

Unfortunately, the problem of the gap between white and African-American football student-athletes in GSR persists. This year, the difference in graduation rates is 16 percentage points which is down from 19 percentage points in 2016. This progress needs to continue. The average GSR for African-American football student-athletes is 71 percent, up from 68 percent in 2016. For white student athletes, the GSR remained constant at 87 percent from last year.

Another one of the most telling signs of positive change was the decrease in schools that had GSRs for African-American football student-athletes that were at least 30 percentage points lower than their rates for white football student-athletes. This year, only six out of the 78 (8 percent) bowl-bound schools were found to have this imbalance compared to last year's findings where 12 schools (15 percent) GSRs had the 30 percentage point difference.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and one of America's foremost civil rights advocates, shared with me that, "The collegiate 'student-athlete' must continue to maximize both sides of that title by pursuing excellence both in the classroom and on the playing field. Although the academic progress that has been made is encouraging, there is still much work to be done in bridging the achievement gap, and ensuring that African American student-athletes are receiving maximum benefit from their educational experience to prepare for a successful life and career after college. Not every athlete will be a Heisman Trophy winner, a first-round draft pick or a Hall of Fame player, but every student has the opportunity through their collegiate experience to prepare, equip and empower themselves for a meaningful and impactful future."

Highlighting success in the classroom

It is heartening to see the academic improvements of our football student-athletes and we need to see these numbers reach new highs every year. 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.

I have been saying for several years that it is time to raise the bar to the equivalent of a 60 percent graduation rate. This year in the 2017 report, every one of the 78 schools participating in a bowl game has surpassed the NCAA's APR benchmark of 930. In fact, the lowest score for a bowl-bound school was 936. I am confident that student-athletes and teams are prepared to compete at the next academic level. We need to institute a change now. If it were already in place, 75 bowl bound schools would be at 60 percent or higher. In fact, 64 bowl bound schools would be at 70 percent or higher.

Another certain way to improve the GSRs would be to equalize the emphasis on performance being rewarded in the classroom and on the field by the powers in charge. Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told me, "It is so troubling that the College Football Playoff (CFP) pays out far more in bonuses to schools for success on the football field than it does for meeting minimal standards of academic performance." Duncan, who now co-chairs the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, urged the CFP board of managers to equalize the academic performance and football performance incentives in its $438 million annual distribution of CFP national championship revenues.

The racial gap is narrowing, but remains persistent

The 16 percentage point gap between the GSRs for African-American football student-athletes and white football student-athletes has its roots in the access of a quality education in early childhood. Because of the comparatively poor education available in urban and rural areas, some of these student-athletes are arriving at their universities academically behind their peers. Duncan, who emphasized improving urban and rural schools while he was Secretary of Education, also noted, "There's still a long way to go to close racial gaps in graduation rates among football players."

It is critical for our admissions offices to only admit student-athletes who have a chance to succeed in the classroom. There must be additional educational support to those who may be below the academic level of their teammates.

The blueprint for academic success

There is an essential ingredient necessary in turning around a program and making a bad situation a great one. I have seen what can be accomplished. The key is great leadership, and it is necessary for academic growth within any program.

Today's report highlights the schools that are leading the pack when it comes to in the classroom achievements of their football student-athletes. The report included this statement: "Wake Forest University, University of Central Florida, Mississippi State University, Duke University, Stanford University, University of Notre Dame, University of South Carolina, and Northwestern University would have played for the National Championship if there was a college football playoff based on Graduation Success Rates among bowl teams. All teams graduated at least 93 percent of all football student-athletes and at least 81 percent of African-American football student-athletes."

I am so proud that UCF remains among those schools, and I believe that the university embodies the dramatic improvements that can occur when a school commits to change. This year, its academic excellence was matched with a dominant, undefeated performance in the American Athletic Conference as well.

The university's student-athletes are one of the top groups academically in the country, but things have not always been that way. Upon my arrival to campus in 2001, UCF's GSR and APR statistics were far from their current levels of success. However, I did know one thing. UCF had just hired Karl Mooney to serve in the athletic department, and he was a force in addressing the academic issues for student-athletes. I knew that with the strong support of our president, John Hitt, that Karl would turn things around.

Then came 2005. UCF was in a bowl game so they would be in the report for the first time. That meant they would be reported with that year's worst graduation rates and second-to-worst APR score. I still remember the headline in the Orlando Sentinel reporting 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 report this? You work for UCF!"

Coincidentally, I had a meeting scheduled that afternoon with President Hitt about other things. We talked about his vision for UCF, about our families, and about the programs that I was involved with at UCF. He did not mention the student-athletes or the Sentinel headline. As I got up to leave, the President took my hand and said, "Thank you for holding our feet to the fire. We are going to get better as a result."

It is 12 years later, and here is what "better" meant.

• Overall, UCF Athletics GSR is 94 percent, and we are ranked #1 in the nation among FBS public institutions for the fourth year in a row. UCF is tied for No. 7 (with Wake Forest University) when you include private institutions. UCF trails only Boston College, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Northwestern, Duke, and Notre Dame.

• UCF's football GSR is 92 percent which ranks No. 3 in the nation among FBS 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.

This is all evidence that it takes a collective commitment in creating change at the university athletics level.

We have a blueprint for how to keep the progress going to make things better. It takes hard work and action, but UCF's dramatic turnaround on and off the field shows that it can be done. And it pays huge rewards.

Brett Estrella made significant contributions to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program 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.