Each fall, millions of young fans watch as their favorite colleges and universities vie on the gridiron for bragging rights in the national rankings. They dream of the excitement that comes from attending a top-ranked football power. They dream of being winners. But after the bowl games are over and the stadium lights have dimmed, too many of these students find themselves losing out on what matters most--the education and degrees they'll need to compete beyond the campus and athletic field.
As the nation celebrates its top-ranked college football teams, it's worth examining their records as academic institutions. Some colleges and universities playing in this season's bowl games received well-deserved criticism last month for low graduation rates among their players. Yet this scrutiny overlooked an even more critical issue: the success rates of all students, particularly students of color.
If colleges and universities competed not in athletics, but instead in college-completion rates, their rankings would look quite different. A "Graduation Championship Series" (GCS) would reward schools that ensure that their students--regardless of race or ethnicity--earn a degree.
The University of Cincinnati Bearcats went undefeated in the regular season, and took the field at the Allstate Sugar Bowl ranked third overall in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) standings. But when it comes to student success rates, this institution is no winner. According to College Results Online, only half of all students enrolled at Cincinnati graduate in six years, below the national average of 56 percent. Among minorities, the numbers are even more disheartening. Fewer than one-third (32 percent) of the school's minority students earn a degree in six years. However, the average college completion rate for minority students at Cincinnati's peer institutions is 10 percentage points higher: 42 percent.
Rose Bowl champion Ohio State University is known for spirited fans, but there's little cause for celebration in the lecture halls surrounding the fabled "Horseshoe." The graduation-rate gap between Ohio State's white students and its minority students is 20 percentage points.
Although the University of Miami finished the season rated 15th in the BCS standings, the "U" would be among the top finishers in this year's "GCS." Miami's minority students graduate at a slightly higher rate (78 percent) than the university's white students (75 percent). Other schools that would rank high in the GCS are Oregon, Georgia Tech, and Florida State. All have overall graduation rates above the national average, and their minority students graduate at rates close to or higher than the rates for white students.
If graduation rates counted on the gridiron, tonight's national championship contest in Pasadena would result in a victory for the Longhorns: The graduation rate for minority students at Texas is 70 percent, 13 points higher than that of its opponent, Alabama--but still eight percentage points lower than the university's graduation rate among its white students.
Beyond the prestige of the BCS championship, a more important drama is playing out with much higher stakes for young fans and for the country. Let's remember, amid the excitement of this year's run for the national championship, that sheepskins matter far more than pigskins. We should celebrate not just the schools that are preparing the next set of NFL superstars but those that are preparing the next generation of America's leaders.