Taking the Measure of Graduation Rates in Big-Time College Sports

By Southall, Richard M. | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Taking the Measure of Graduation Rates in Big-Time College Sports


Southall, Richard M., Phi Kappa Phi Forum


Popular-press headlines touting the academic strides of athletes in higher education seem encouraging. "Six-Year Grad Rate at All-time High," proclaims one. (1) But the real story about this demographic is less simplistic and more problematic. Numerous other sources, from sports conferences to schools themselves, document much lower graduation rates for college football and men's basketball and baseball players than for general students. (2) Compounding matters is that only about 57 percent of all college students complete a bachelor's degree in six years. (3)

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In addition, a large segment of the public remains uneasy about big-time athletic programs that generate many millions of dollars in net revenues apiece--via amateur players enrolled on nonprofit campuses. (4) And college football and men's basketball coaches' salaries dwarf those of faculty members; by the end of 2011, 32 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) coaches and 11 NCAA Division I men's basketball coaches earned more than $2 million annually, with Texas' Mack Brown the highest paid in football at $5.19 million and Louisville's Rick Pitino the highest paid in basketball at $8.93 million. (5) (Not for nothing has Wake Forest University sociologist Earl Smith called big-time college sport an "athletic industrial complex." (6))

Some college sport fans and school personnel might be aware the uneasy relationship between athletics and higher education dates back generations. For instance, University of Chicago was a football powerhouse at the turn of the 20th century, and its senior halfback Jay Berwanger won the first Heisman Trophy, awarded to the nation's outstanding college football player, in 1935. But four years later, university president Robert Maynard Hutchins, concerned about an "overemphasis on athletics" on the field, in the classroom, throughout the stadium and beyond it, abolished the football program essentially because, as he remarked, "apologists of athleticism have created a collection of myths to convince the public that biceps are a substitute for brains." (7) (Varsity football--albeit NCAA Division III, in which athletic scholarships are not awarded--was reinstated there in 1969.)

Perhaps less apparent to mainstream society is how 266 NCAA major infractions in the 1980s and '90s (including 57 of the 106 major universities competing in the NCAA's top competitive level being censured, sanctioned, or put on probation during the 1980s) resulted in inquiries and reports by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in 1991, '92 and '93 and Congressional action. (8) The NCAA and its members accordingly enacted a series of reforms, including Proposition 48, which mandated prospective college athletes must earn at least a 2.0 grade point average, score a minimum of 700 on the SAT (since recalibrated to reflect revisions to the SAT) and complete no less than 11 core courses, and Proposition 16, which established an "initial eligibility index based on standardized test scores and grade-point averages."(9) But a real or perceived athletic-academic divide has persisted, and more high-profile academic scandals involving cheating, plagiarism, clustering of athletes in certain majors, and excessive use of independent study or interdisciplinary study programs have continued (e.g., University of Tennessee, 1991-2001; University of Minnesota, 1999; Auburn University, 2006; University of Michigan, 2008; Florida State University, 2008-10; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill currently). Further correctives ensued, including FBS universities increasing their annual budget for tutoring and academic services substantially. More than half of the nation's 73 biggest athletics programs at least doubled it between 1997 and 2007, and the average at FBS schools topped $1 million. (10)

Simultaneously, new methods arose to measure graduation rates of college athletes. …

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