A new study suggests that a statistical flaw relied upon by the NCAA means that graduation rates for major college football and men's basketball players lag behind those of other students – not the other way around.
The NCAA's most recent report on Division I graduation, known as the Graduation Success Rate, shows that athletes who entered college in 2002 graduated at a record rate of 79 percent. Even using the federal graduation rate, which does not account for transfer students, athletes posted a 64 percent graduation rate, a mark two points higher than in the general student body.
But a new report by the University of North Carolina's College Sport Research Institute calls those numbers misleading. The NCAA data for non-athletes includes students who begin their academic careers as full-time students but later become part-timers. As a group, those students take longer to graduate.
By definition, NCAA athletes cannot be part-time students.
"Athletes are required to be full-time students to maintain their eligibility," said study author Woody Eckard, a University of Colorado Denver economist. "They should be compared to other students who are also full-time."
Using adjusted statistics, the Chapel Hill-based institute says that 54.8 percent of Football Bowl Subdivision athletes at 117 schools graduated within six years, compared to 73.7 percent of other full-time students.
The gap in Division I basketball was even larger, with 44.6 percent of athletes earning degrees at 116 schools, compared to 75.7 percent of the general student body.
The analysis assumes that about 12 percent of students initially classified as full-time in the federal Department of Education reports later take reduced class loads.
NCAA officials called the study a "very limited statistical analysis" that fails to account for other variables, such as students' academic preparation, that influence graduation rates.
"There are many academic challenges out there for general students and student-athletes in college," NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson said. "We welcome efforts to try and better understand those issues and that will lead to policy decisions that will help more student-athletes to succeed academically.
"This study does not add to any real understanding of the issues and does not provide an unbiased viewpoint from which to look at these issues anew."
Co-author Richard Southall, the sports research institute's director, said he and Eckard weren't trying to "challenge, refute or replace" the NCAA and federal graduation rate data.
Instead, they suggest that a more accurate way to measure athletes' graduation rates would account for what is essentially a part-time job and compare those students to others who are not able to concentrate solely on academics while in school. That approach would generate lower but more "realistic" graduate rates on both sides, Southall said.
"They should be compared to other students working their way through college," he said. "It's easy to be seen as bashing the athlete. That's not the case at all."
Eckard and Southall, a North Carolina sport administration professor, will present their findings on Friday at an annual academic conference on sports research. Future studies will examine graduation gaps for other NCAA sports beyond football and men's basketball.
The researchers did not study graduation rates at individual schools because the numbers, particularly in basketball, would be too low to be statistically significant. They did break down the results by conference.
In football, the Mid-American Conference had the narrowest gap, with athletic graduation rates just 10.7 percent lower than those in the overall student body. The Pac-10 had the largest gap at 30.1 percent.
In basketball, Conference USA had the smallest gap between athletes and other students, with a difference of 21.1 percent. Six of the 10 conferences studied – the SEC, Mountain West, Atlantic 10, Big Ten, Pac-10 and ACC – had what the researchers call an "adjusted graduation gap" of at least 30 percent.
In the ACC, the gap for men's basketball was more than twice as large, with a 41.3 percent graduation rate for athletes compared to 82.8 percent for other students.
Conferences with lower graduation gaps in general also had lower overall gradation rates. For instance, while the Mid-American had the smallest gap in football, its overall graduation rate of 66.6 percent trailed those in the ACC (82.8 percent) and Pac-10 (82.6 percent).