Six-year grad rate at all-time high

INDIANAPOLIS -- The NCAA released its annual report on graduation rates Tuesday and proudly declared that college athletes are earning degrees at record rates and outpacing their fellow students by nearly all measures.

For the first time, the graduation rate for both the one-year snapshot of incoming freshman (in 2004-05) and the four-class measure (covering the years 2001-04), hit at least 80 percent.

The one-year score was 82 percent, three percentage points higher than the record 79 percent from the previous three reports. The four-year average was 80 percent, breaking the previous all-time high of 79 set in 2009 and matched in 2010.

"These numbers are real, important indicators of the work we've done," said Walter Harrison, the University of Hartford president and chair of the NCAA's committee on academic performance. "I think about these results and I don't see percentage points as much as I do real students, going off to lead successful lives with better chances than before we began this work."

Critics sometimes contend the NCAA's numbers are skewed because it uses a different calculation from the federal government. While both measure success over six years, the feds do not count the performance of transfer students regardless of whether they earn a diploma.

But even the government numbers show a record 65 percent of all Division I athletes earned a degree, compared to 63 percent of the overall student body. The NCAA does not calculate grad rates for the overall student population.

One possible explanation for the record numbers is a first-time inclusion of Ivy League schools in the annual report. Those schools had not previously been included because the Ivy League does not award scholarships based on athletic performance.

The NCAA contends that while the Ivy League schools did have a significant impact on the Football Championship Subdivision numbers, it had a minimal impact on the across-the-board numbers. For instance, the overall one-year grad rate would have still been a record 81 percent even without the Ivy League schools.

NCAA president Mark Emmert and others believe the results are a direct reflection of the NCAA's academic reforms.

In 2003, the NCAA changed the eligibility requirements for incoming freshmen and college upperclassmen. It required high school seniors to complete 16 core courses and upperclassmen to finish a higher percentage of course work toward a degree to remain eligible.

The most dramatic improvement in the first two years with tougher standards came among black athletes in football and men's basketball. Graduation rates jumped five percentage points among black players in the Football Bowl Subdivision and four percentage points among black men's basketball players.

What it means is that an additional 400 black athletes from the 2004-05 freshmen class finished school with a diploma, the NCAA said.

"It's an incredible move," Emmert said. "It seems to be very broad based and that 82 percent level was something we had hoped for several years ago and we weren't sure if we were going to make it in the timeframe we had hoped. This type of progress doesn't happen overnight. It's a good, long time coming."

The other NCAA numbers show significant progress, too.

Eighty-three percent of male athletes graduated from college, a five-percentage point jump, while female athletes improved two percentage points to 92 percent.

Among black athletes, the rate improved four percentage points to 68. White athletes came in at 87 percent, a three-percentage point increase, and even baseball, which has traditionally lagged among the lowest scoring sports, made a one-year jump from 69.6 percent to 77.4 percent.

About the only glitch on the otherwise strong report was a slight decrease in the one-year analysis of FBS schools. It went from 69.2 percent to 68.6 percent, still the second-highest number in history.

"There was an eight-point jump (in baseball) in one year, which is remarkable, and I am absolutely certain this is a direct result of the (baseball specific) reforms we made a few years ago," Harrison said. "Our work is far from done. We have two sports as Mark pointed out that considerably trail our other sports, those being men's basketball and football, and we need to improve those sports and others to make sure everyone is graduating at a rate over 80 percent."

While reaching the 80 percent plateau is a milestone achievement after collecting data for 10 years, the push is on to do even better.

In August, Emmert pushed for -- and got -- the board of directors to approve tougher penalties for teams that don't make the grade on the annual Academic Progress Report, which is released in the spring. Teams that fail to make a higher benchmark could even be banned from postseason tournaments.

The board is expected to consider this week when those penalties will take effect. Emmert even took time to clarify a comment he made Monday that some took to mean postseason bans could begin this year.

"That (2011-12) has never been under consideration. It has been under consideration for the following year (2012-13)," he said.

In other findings:

• The report found that grad rates in 19 of 36 sports improved over four years, while 15 showed no change. The only sports that had drops were women's skiing (95 percent to 94 percent) and women's gymnastics (93 percent to 92 percent).

• Nineteen of the top 25 teams in the BCS standings graduated at least 60 percent of their players over the four-year period. Stanford and Penn State tied for the best mark with 87 percent. Only two teams, Oklahoma (48 percent) and South Carolina (39 percent) fell under the 50 percent mark, though South Carolina issued a statement saying that it had inadvertently not reported 11 players who had graduated. The school says that will improve its score by 16 to 18 points.

• Only one of last season's Final Four teams, in men's or women's basketball, posted a perfect score over the four-year measure. The Notre Dame women's team came in at 100 percent, the Stanford women were next at 93 percent with the Connecticut women at 90 percent and national champion Texas A&M at 70 percent.

• Butler (82 percent) had the highest four-year grad rate among the men's Final Four teams. Kentucky (69) and Virginia Commonwealth (67) were next, followed by national champion Connecticut at 25 percent. UConn President Susan Herbst has implemented a new academic plan for men's basketball in an attempt to improve its dismal academic marks.

"I've put a number of top faculty on this committee, because academic performance of the athletes is a No. 1 priority of this university, along with compliance," Herbst said.