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NCAA says college athletes breaking records in graduation rates

INDIANAPOLIS -- Clemson jumped to the top of the class in the first College Football Playoff ranking.

The Tigers are also getting their work done in the classroom.

According to the latest Graduation Success Rates released Wednesday by the NCAA, TCU, Clemson and Ohio State have the best numbers of the still-unbeaten teams in the FBS. TCU came in at 83.8 percent, Clemson was next at 83.6 and defending national champion Ohio State was third at 81.3 percent.

This year's release covers incoming freshmen classes from 2005 to '08 and calculates the percentage of all athletes who earned a degree within six years of entering school.

"To me that's the true standard. It's nice to be No. 1 and win games, but that's my true scorecard," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, noting that 115 of his 120 seniors have earned a degree. "We have a deep-rooted culture here, so it's not a shock to players when they have to go to class. Not everyone is serious about it, but we are."

Given the potential penalties, coaches must take academics seriously, and it's showing.

Grad rates for the 2008-09 freshman class were up 2 percentage points to a record 86 percent over the 2007-08 freshmen class. The four-year numbers went up one point, reaching an all-time high of 83 percent.

The federal numbers, which some consider more accurate, reveal a similar trend. The overall grad rate among athletes was up one percentage point to a record 67 percent, compared with the overall student rate, which remained flat at 65 percent.

The feds exclude transfers, even if someone earns a diploma at another school. The NCAA includes players who switch schools if they leave in good academic standing.

Critics contend that athletes should graduate at a higher rate since they can get more help, be steered to certain classes and professors, be clustered into majors that make it easier to excel in the classroom and don't face the same financial obligations as other students.

NCAA officials insist athletes face additional obstacles because of their time commitments and that steady improvement over the past 14 years is a direct result of a more concerted academic push from school leaders.

Sweeney has gone even further -- writing letters to each senior to find out his plan to earn a degree.

That's the kind of proactive stance the NCAA wanted to get from its academic reform movement.

"We are moving in the right direction," said Ohio University President Roderick McDavis, chairman of the Division I committee on academics. "Ultimately, the real significance of this is that more student-athletes are graduating from college, and that's good news."

Of the top 10 teams in the CFP rankings, only three schools -- Michigan State (65.6), LSU (69.8) and Iowa (71) -- had rates lower than 74 percent. Stanford (98) and Notre Dame (93.3) had the highest rates.

Five teams in the men's basketball preseason Top 25 had perfect marks: No. 4 Kansas, No. 5 Duke, No. 11 Villanova, No. 19 Notre Dame and No. 24 Butler. Top-ranked North Carolina (80) was the only team in the top five to finish under 90 percent.

Only three ranked teams came in at less than 60 percent -- LSU (58.3), California (54.5) and UConn (20) -- although the Huskies have seen a 12-point increase over the past couple of years.

UConn spokesman Mike Enright says that because the rate includes players who started at the Storrs campus a decade ago, it is still reflecting the academic problems that caused UConn to be banned from the NCAA tournament in 2013. That ban stemmed from another academic measurement, the Academic Progress Rate, which measures academic eligibility.

"We anticipate that our graduation report, which still reflects those older numbers, will see a similar improvement over the next few years,'' Enright said.

California has seen its score jump 17 points since 2013.

"Moving a four-year average takes time," California athletic director Mike Williams said, noting the numbers don't represent any of basketball coach Cuonzo Martin's recruits. "Because we are looking at lagging indicators with the graduation rates, the positive results we are seeing now in the APR will be reflected in our GSR in four to five years."

Other findings in the report included:

• The overall one-year graduation rate in men's basketball increased 3 percentage points to 77, an all-time high, while the graduation rate in women's basketball was 89 percent.

• The rate among black men's and women's basketball players each jumped 5 percentage points to record highs of 72 percent and 84 percent, respectively.

• Seventy-five percent of FBS players received diplomas, a number that held steady, while those in the FCS went from 72 percent last year to 76 percent this year.

• Graduation rates among all white athletes went up one point to 90 percent, while black athletes saw a 3-point increase over 2014 to 73 percent.

• The NCAA says the improvements have translated to 16,565 more players earning degrees.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.