College football grad rates slide; gap widens between Black and white players

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Editor's note: Richard Lapchick is a human rights activist, pioneer for racial equality, expert on sports issues, scholar and author.

As we approach the end of 2020, a year that will be remembered for being full of challenges, the effort and commitment shown by so many to carry out another college football season was extraordinary. Traditionally over the past decade, we have seen upward of 70 teams selected to participate in bowl games at the culmination of the season. However, in a year with so many traditions altered, 56 Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams each accepted an invitation to participate in one of college football's 28 bowl games. With the health and safety of everyone involved a top priority, student-athletes from those bowl-bound teams will play one final game, representing their respective universities on a national stage.

However, we must not forget that many of these student-athletes enrolled in colleges and universities intending to pursue a degree in hopes of graduating and going into the workforce once their football playing careers end.

"The global pandemic has further exposed disparities in our world that have existed for years," the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, shared with me. "That includes the unfortunate gap in academic achievement and sustainability among our student-athletes. ... Student-athletes must succeed as STUDENTS, not just as athletes. Since less than 2% of these gifted young people will ever make it to the professional ranks, we must prepare them for success both on and off the field. The message needs to be sent to our collegiate leadership letting them know that Black EDUCATION Matters!"

For those athletes fortunate enough to make it to the NFL, their careers last, on average, less than four years. Universities, therefore, have a responsibility to prepare their students for graduation and foster an environment that adequately allows them to gain the skills necessary to thrive in the workforce after graduation. University leaders, including head coaches, must emphasize the importance of receiving an education. Otherwise, the term "student" used in the ubiquitous phrase "student-athlete" can come into question.

Tuesday, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released its "Keeping Score When It Counts: Assessing the Academic Records of the 2020-2021 Bowl-Bound College Football Teams." The annual report contains the football student-athlete Graduation Success Rate (GSR) and Academic Progress Rate (APR) for bowl-bound teams. The overall GSR for bowl-bound teams this year was 78.0%, down from 79.1% in 2019. The average GSR for Black football student-athletes declined slightly, from 73.8% in 2019 to 73.4% in 2020, and the gap between the graduation rates for white and Black student-athletes increased, from 15.6% to 16.3%, over the same span.

This is the first time that the overall football student-athlete GSR has decreased from the previous year since the statistic was first reported in the 2009 bowl-bound report. After a decade of uninterrupted progress, this was a discouraging pause. However, it is worth noting that the current GSR is significantly higher than when the streak started. The overall football student-athlete GSR in 2009 was 65.5, a full 12.5 percentage points below where it is in 2020.

In 2003, the NCAA introduced the APR as part of an academic reform package designed to more accurately measure student-athletes' academic success in addition to increasing 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. Teams are penalized if they fall below the minimum threshold of an APR score of 930, which is the expected graduation rate of 50% of a team's student-athletes. The last time a bowl-eligible team did not meet the minimum APR requirement was four years ago.

All of the 2020 bowl-bound schools had an APR higher than the minimum 930 required, continuing a positive trend going back to 2018. The average APR for the 2020 bowl-bound schools was 968, compared to 971 in 2019. The four teams vying for the national championship -- the University of Alabama, Clemson University, The Ohio State University and the University of Notre Dame -- have APRs of 990, 993, 985 and 970, respectively. Clemson's and Alabama's APRs were among the top 10 out of the 56 bowl-bound teams, and all four schools were above the bowl-bound average.

Until this year, there had been a steady improvement in APR and GSR scores as the gap between Black students and white students had narrowed. However, as mentioned previously, the average GSR for Black football student-athletes is 73.4%, down from 73.8% in 2019. In addition, the average GSR for white football student-athletes is 89.7%, up from 89.4% in 2019, increasing the gap between Black and white football student-athletes to 16.3%. For the second time in three years, this gap has increased. These negative trends are concerning, and there is ample room for concentrated action to take place to ensure Black student-athletes can have an equal chance for success as their white counterparts.

There are many reasons that continue to contribute to this disparity, with one being the lack of access to equivalent educational resources. Even in 2020, we see certain school districts in areas that are predominantly Black that continue to be underfunded and missing the technology available in fully resourced school districts.

In 2020, 39.3% of schools (22 total) had GSRs for Black football student-athletes that were at least 20 percentage points lower than the rates for white football student-athletes, which is a decrease from 41% in the 2019 study. One school, Louisiana Tech, has a gap of greater than 40%. This is clearly unacceptable and must be addressed.

Every year I ask the question: How we can address this gap in graduation rates between Black and white football student-athletes? Institutions are responsible for providing the academic support necessary to give student-athletes the opportunity to succeed. The accountability falls on the student-athlete to be industrious in the classroom, on admissions offices to accept students who have a reasonable chance to succeed at their respective institutions, and on the student-athlete support system to give the assistance necessary to assure the student-athlete completes their educational goals. Athletic departments must make it a priority to provide the best student-athlete experience possible, and this starts with fostering success off the field of play.

Arne Duncan, who served as U.S. secretary of education from 2009 to 2015 and is now head of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, has consistently addressed disparities in the quality of education available in urban and rural schools, especially noting how segregated housing can result in segregated schools. He has been an advocate for improving public education, especially in urban areas, and believes institutions of higher education should be held to higher standards. "That is especially true," he said, "in urban areas where residential segregation is a huge roadblock for equity in education."

And as I have urged in previous years, I continue to maintain that the minimum APR requirement should be raised to predict a minimum threshold of 60% for the GSR metric. In 2020, no bowl-bound teams were below a 60% GSR, and 17 teams failed to reach an APR of 960. In addition, 47 of the 56 bowl-bound teams graduated at least 70% of their student-athletes. The 50% standard is simply too low.

In typical years, bowl games, especially the College Football Playoffs, have lucrative payouts for participating schools. These payouts are distributed to the represented conferences and then portioned out to each institution that meets the NCAA APR measure for participation in a postseason game. Oftentimes, the funding allocated to the schools goes toward initiatives such as improving athletic facilities or recruiting. The NCAA should consider implementing measures that dictate a portion of the revenue distribution be put toward academic development in addition to these athletics-driven initiatives.

As we move toward 2021, a determination from the NCAA on its name, image and likeness rule is likely to be made. In January, the NCAA's board of governors is scheduled to vote on a proposal that, if approved, would allow student-athletes to profit from endorsements. However, a determination on how compensation would work is pending a federal solution. The NCAA will need to maintain stressing the importance of academic success amid these changing circumstances as the economic opportunities for student-athletes shift.

In spite of the large financial implications of collegiate football, we must remind ourselves that the "student" in "student-athlete" comes first for a reason. Athletic scholarships are powerful tools that provide opportunities to receive a valuable education. Additionally, access to a high-quality education can be one of the most impactful means to overcoming the barriers to upward mobility for today's impoverished communities. Academic and athletic leaders have a responsibility to prepare their students for graduation and equip them with the skills to be successful in their respective communities and workforces. Opportunity exists to enact change, but it will take a concerted effort from all parties involved. For the first time, a portion of Division I revenue was distributed to schools based on academic success of student-athletes in the 2019-20 academic year. This is a great step for the NCAA and one that reminds us all of the importance of achievements off the field.

As athletes become "athlete activists," they are focusing more on the effects of systemic racism in society and hopefully will turn their attention to the effect on higher education and college sports. They will have a real impact on their campuses if they focus on hiring practices. As the 2020 racial reckoning has shown, there is much more needed to do to assure equity in educational opportunity, including for student-athletes.

Kyle Richardson 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 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.