What is the NCAA trying to show?

Another great O’Bannon follow on twitter: USA Today’s Steve Berkowitz.

Central to the NCAA’s case for preserving the status quo is that doing so is necessary to maintain the fundamentally educational character of the college sports enterprise. Among the many arguments the NCAA has tried to make in this regard is that graduation rates for black athletes are better than for black non-athletes. In other words, the NCAA is delivering on its promise to provide this cohort with an education opportunity it might not otherwise have.

At trial this morning, according to Berkowitz, a lawyer for the NCAA argued specifically that black male basketball players and black football players have higher graduation rates than do black students as a whole. There’s no trial transcript available at the moment, so I don’t know what measure the NCAA was using. But when scholars who study graduation rates make appropriate apples-to-apples comparisons, the NCAA’s claim is not true.

For several years now, my friend and co-author Dr. Richard Southall, along with colleagues of his working under the auspices of the College Sport Research Institute (CSRI), have issued reports about what they describe as the Adjusted Graduation Gap (AGG). To back up, there is a federally-mandated reporting tool, the Federal Graduation Rate (FGR), which requires universities to report on the percentage of students who initially enrolled at the school and graduated from it within six years. If students drop down to part-time status – a common occurrence – they may take longer than six years to graduate. FGR doesn’t account for that possibility. Likewise, if a student  transfers to another school, they will count as not graduating, according to FGR.

When FGR reports showed low graduation rates among college athletes, the NCAA balked, contending among other things that the prevalence of athletic transfers skewed the numbers. Consequently, the good folks in Indianapolis devised their own measure for tracking graduation rates – the Graduation Success Rate (GSR). According to GSR’s methodology, if a player transfers, but was in good academic standing at the time he did so, his departure would not count against the school’s GSR.

Scholars like Southall have argued that this is a reasonable factor to consider if the goal is to understand the educational life course of college athletes. What you can’t do, though, is make a fair comparison by using GSR rates for athletes and FGR rates for non-athletes, since there is no available measure that accounts for non-athletes transfer data. That’s one blatant kind of apples-to-oranges comparison that NCAA boosters have sometimes made.

More subtle, but still significant, is what Southall’s AGG attempts to correct. FGR rates include, as I mentioned, full time students and part-time students, with the latter obviously less likely to graduate within six years. There aren’t that many part-time students at the most selective colleges and universities. But at many other institutions of higher education there are a lot. However, if you’re a college athlete, you are *required* to be a full time student. Therefore, comparing FGR rates among athletes and non-athletes without accounting for the “downward bias” of part-timers, is going to make college athletes’ graduation rates look particularly good. AGG, therefore, only compares full-time students’ graduation rates. And what that measure has consistently found is that graduation rates among athletes are dramatically lower than for the student population as a whole among schools in the major conferences. Furthermore, on the specific claim NCAA lawyers made this morning – and that one hears repeatedly – black basketball players and football players graduate at significantly lower rates than do black male non-athletes.

It is true that some athletes will come back to finish their schooling after they leave for the pros, and some will do so outside the six year time horizon, a reminder that none of these measures captures the totality of a complex reality.

And one could still argue that many of the recruited athletes are receiving an opportunity for a college education to which they would not otherwise have had access.

But it’s becoming increasingly untenable for the NCAA to argue that its *primary* mission, especially in the two major profit sports, is to provide a great educational experience for the athletes. Its graduation rate success story, particularly pertaining to black athletes, has been one pillar of that defense. Southall and others have been showing for years that that’s a shaky claim.


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