NCAA graduation rates improving

INDIANAPOLIS -- The NCAA says football and men's basketball players are becoming more productive in the classroom.

A one-year measurement, released Thursday, showed that 70 percent or more of Division I athletes who were freshmen in 2005-06 in those sports earned their diplomas -- the first time that has happened since the governing body started collecting data 11 years ago for the annual Graduation Success Rate.

Athletes in men's basketball graduated at a rate of 74 percent, a 6 percentage-point jump over the 2004-05 freshman class. Football Bowl Subdivision athletes improved their scores by 1 percentage point over the previous year, hitting 70 percent.

The records aren't confined to football and basketball.

Numbers compiled over four years, from the freshmen classes of 2002-03 through 2005-06, matched last year's record-high of 80 percent. The federal graduation rate also remained steady, matching the one-year record-high of 65 percent last year. That was also 2 percentage points above the overall student body, the same disparity the government reported last year.

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

NCAA president Mark Emmert believes the improvements can be explained by the NCAA's push for tougher academic standards over the past decade.

Back in 2003, the NCAA strengthened 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.

Last year, Emmert pushed for -- and got -- the board of directors to approve tougher penalties including postseason bans for teams that don't make the grade on the annual Academic Progress Report, which is released in the spring. The Connecticut men's basketball team is the first major school in one of the two big sports to miss the cutline and will be ineligible for postseason play this season.

Not all of the numbers were better.

The overall grad rate for the 2005-06 freshman class was 81 percent, down one percentage point from the previous one-year total.

But the most notable numbers came in the two sports that traditionally lag behind the other sports.

The NCAA has seen an 18 percentage-point increase in men's basketball, a 21 percentage-point increase among black basketball players and a 7-percentage point increase in FBS players over the past 11 years.

Every sub-group measured by the government, with the exception of white men, shows athletes graduate at a higher rate than their peers. White male athletes trail their non-athletic peers by 1 percentage point.