Bowl-bound athletes achieve academic success, but racial gap persists

AP Photo/Roger Steinman

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

With all the attention being paid to who is playing in which bowl, who might play for the national championship, the transfer portal and numerous NIL deals, there has hardly been any discussion of the academic progress of those playing on college football teams. Today, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) hopes to change that with the release of "Keeping Score When It Counts: Assessing the Academic Records of the 2022-23 Bowl-Bound College Football Teams," an annual report prepared by TIDES at the University of Central Florida.

The report reviewed the overall football graduation rates, the graduation rates for both white and Black players, the overall graduation rate of all student-athletes at the school, and overall graduation rates of the university they are playing for.

The academic success of FBS football student-athletes has improved this year. The overall football student-athlete Graduation Success Rate (GSR) for bowl-bound teams reached an all-time high for the TIDES report at 82.99%, a slight 1.69 percentage point increase from 81.3% in 2021.

A positive trend that continued in 2022 is that, for the fifth time in six years, every school participating in a bowl game had at least a 50% GSR for its football team.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, founder and leader of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, told me that "the most critical part of being a 'student-athlete' is to win as a student. That means, preparing young men and women not only for game day, but for graduation day. As much as I enjoy watching the various bowl games and championships, my thoughts are always moved to consider: Are these players prepared to have victories in the game of life? Will they take the same discipline from the football field into the classroom? Will they maximize their opportunity for a quality education at these top universities?

"It is always my hope that gifted young athletes are not limited to winning a bowl game and miss graduation day. We don't want them to experience a season like March Madness, and then suffer May sadness because they don't graduate or are not prepared for a successful future."

Jackson said the coalition's national sports director, Joseph Bryant, has led efforts to implement a "Life Beyond the Playing Field" career mentoring program at numerous college sports experiences for the past several years. "We can all celebrate what the students achieve on the field," Jackson said, "but we must also cheer for them and prepare them on to win in the classroom today and in the future careers tomorrow!"

For me, the most glaring problem, as it has been for years, is the gap between white and Black football student-athletes. While it decreased slightly this year, it continues to be a major issue. The gap this year is 11.6%, which is the closest the gap has been in the history of this report, down from 11.7% last year. Among the 82 bowl-bound teams, the average GSR for Black student-athletes is 79.51%, up from 78.0% in 2021. The average GSR for white football student-athletes increased from 89.7% in 2021 to 91.07% in 2022.

By comparison, 15 years ago in the 2006-07 bowl game report, there was a 13% gap, with white football student-athletes graduating at 62% versus 49% for Black football student-athletes. That was about the time the NCAA finally put in a reform package with teeth. The NCAA created the Academic Progress Rate (APR) in 2004 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. Full implementation started a few years later and showed dramatic results. The APR holds each team accountable for the success of student-athletes in the classroom and their progression toward graduation. Individual teams are penalized if they fall below an APR score of 930, which is an expected graduation rate of 50% of its student-athletes. Up to 10% of scholarships can be taken away. Teams can also be subject to historical penalties for poor academic performance over time.

Ten years ago, among the bowl-bound teams in 2012-13, there was a 20% gap, with white football student-athletes graduating at 82% versus 62% for Black football student-athletes. Five years ago, among the bowl-bound teams in 2017-2018, there was a 19% gap, with white football student-athletes graduating at 87% versus 68% for Black football student-athletes.

It must be emphasized that Black and white football student-athletes graduate at a higher rate than their male nonathlete peers in the student body within Division I schools. The graduation rate for Black male students is 36%, in comparison to the 63% graduation rate for white male students, according to the NCAA Education and Research Data as reported in the 2021-22 TIDES Bowl-Bound College Football Teams Report. That 27% gap for the general student population remains totally unacceptable for education in America.

"The problem of the gap between Black and white student-athletes doesn't start at the college level," Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration and now co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Education, shared with me. "The problem goes back to the academic preparation some students get from elementary school through high school."

Michigan, Ohio State, Georgia and TCU advanced to the College Football Playoff semifinals on Dec. 31. Ohio State and Michigan had high graduation rates while Georgia and TCU had lower graduation rates. The four schools graduated 94%, 86%, 54% and 74% of all their football student-athletes, respectively. As for their Black football student-athletes, they graduated 90%, 83%, 47% and 73%, respectively. Their white football student-athletes graduated at rates of 100%, 93%, 80% and 76%, respectively. The substantial graduation rate gap between white and Black football student-athletes at a school competing for a national championship is disturbing.

All four schools did well with their Academic Progress Rates (APR). APRs for the four schools were Ohio State 991, Michigan 980, Georgia 967 and TCU 955. Once again, Michigan and Ohio State were in higher academic standing than Georgia and TCU according to the APR.

Troubling statistics in the study of the bowl-bound teams included the fact that 80 schools (97.56%) had GSRs of 70% or higher for white football student-athletes, which was close to 1.25 times the number of schools with equivalent GSRs for Black football student-athletes (67 schools, or 81.7%). There are five bowl bound teams that had a GSR for their Black football student-athletes at least 30 percentage points lower than that of their white football student-athletes.

I contend that since every school in bowl games in five of the past six years has had at least a 50% GSR for their football teams, the bar should be raised to where the minimum APR would be at least the equivalent of 60%.

Bowl-bound FBS schools in "Power Five" conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference) averaged 2.77 points higher in APR with a score of 969.96 than bowl-bound schools in "Group of Five" conferences (American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West Conference and Sun Belt Conference) with an average score 967.19. Bowl-bound schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference had the highest APR among all FBS conferences.

The Institute has taken the position that Federal Graduation Rates (FGR) give an unfair depiction of a school because it does not account for transfer students. A student-athlete who transfers in good standing and graduates at another institution counts as a non-graduate at the initial school. The FGR also does not count a junior college student who transfers into a four-year college and graduates as a graduate, or a former student-athlete who returns and graduates more than six years after original enrollment. The Institute supports the NCAA's use of the GSR, developed in 2002, which accounts for these factors, as a better way to fairly measure the results.

Based on the data from 2018-21, depending on the sport, race and gender in the categories of Division I overall, men's overall, football, men's basketball and women's basketball, the NCAA's GSR rates are between 18 and 35 percentage points higher than the federal government's FGR (Federal Graduation Rate) rates which allow comparisons with nonathlete students.

Overall, it is a positive step that both the graduation success rates are going up and that the gap between Black and white football student-athletes has gone down. Nonetheless, there is room for more improvement.

Richard E. Lapchick directs the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES). He 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.