We recently bid farewell to quite a tough year for NCAA Division I (DI) collegiate athletics, from the tragedy of Penn State football to the ineligibility of top teams for post-season competition due to various gross violation of ethical standards. Many see high-profile D1 sports programs as being out of control. Schools increasingly hop from one conference to another, causing odd distortions to once sensible leagues. And there are the usual concerns over graduation rates and career prospects for players not making the professional ranks. Some of the harsher critics argue that the major D1 sports ought to be regarded as professional entertainment, with recruited athletes paid handsomely for their performances, rather than their current status as students with full scholarships and extensive special amenities. How many D1 athletes would have enrolled at their current institutions were it not for the potential financial benefits and career prospects in professional sports?
Some recently released data help tell the story of a strikingly different situation among the NCAA Division III (D3) athletics programs. (D3 includes many liberal arts colleges and some small to mid-size universities.) Unlike those in D1 and D2, D3 programs may not award athletics scholarships, or grant any credit toward "merit" scholarship awards due to participation in high school sports. Even service as team captains is barred from consideration in the category of "leadership" experience in determining "merit" in the financial aid sense. Yet interest in D3 varsity sports remains high, and the academic success of D3 student athletes is remarkable.
The NCAA recently reported a study of graduation rates among 128 participating D3 programs that provided the most recent six-year graduation rate among all student-athletes (those appearing on at least one varsity team roster in their first year on campus). The aggregate graduation rate among the D3 athletes was 86 percent, while the graduation rate for all students was only 62 percent. That is, the varsity athletes graduated at a rate nearly 40 percent higher than the overall average. For male student-athletes the graduation rate was 81 percent, while the rate for all men was 58 percent. Women out-performed men, with female student-athletes graduating at a rate of 92 percent versus a 65 percent graduation rate for all females.
The results were impressive even in the high-profile D3 sports. Among schools with football programs, the graduation rate for student-athletes was 74 percent compared with 52 percent for all male students. In men's basketball, student-athletes outperformed the overall male student average by 79 percent to 60 percent. For women's basketball, the student-athletes led 89 percent to 69 percent.
I am especially proud of the data for my institution, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), a mid-sized technological university in which the great majority of students major in one or more areas of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). While the national dropout rate is a worrisome 40 percent from collegiate STEM programs, WPI's most recent freshman-to-sophomore continuation rate of 96 percent and its six-year graduation rate of 80 percent. Despite the high level of rigor and demanding graduation requirements of our STEM programs, student-athletes in these programs succeed at a truly exceptional level.
For the period covered by the NCAA study, WPI's student athletes out-performed both the national and campus averages, with a six-year graduation rate of 90 percent versus the overall WPI rate of 76 percent. Consistent with the national data, our female student-athletes graduated at a rate of 97 percent versus 91 percent for all women, and our male student-athletes experienced a graduation rate of 88 percent versus 72 percent for all WPI men. In particular, the graduation rates for both men's and women's basketball were fully 100 percent, and the rate among football players was 90 percent.
This is all happening at a "tech" school where students are proud to be known as "nerds," the school mascot is a goat, and many of the traditional cheers and apparel insignia are chocked with mathematical terms. Clearly the collaborative spirit and culture of high achievement and hard work are as common in varsity athletics as among our academic and artistic programs. The quality of character among our student-athletes, their coaches, and members of the athletics staff is similarly strong. For example, our men's basketball coach (whose season record is currently 14-0) was honored by the faculty for distinguished community service, and insists that his players "perform well on the court, in the classroom, and in the community."
Division III athletics is much more than terrific entertainment for fans and spectators, or a primary reason for a student-athlete to enroll. It is an integral part of the overall development of young adults well prepared for lives of high career achievement, leadership, and fulfillment. Varsity athletics can and should be an especially significant contributor to both the quality of campus life and the value of the student experience. This is the win-win.
Dennis D. Berkey is president and CEO of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts.