How Much “Student” in Student-Athlete?

For many observers, the most disturbing element of the ongoing investigation of the UNC-Chapel Hill football team is the academic issue—news that team members received inappropriate tutoring help in order to remain eligible to play. This concern has prompted a Pope Center review of the academic progress among Division 1 athletes in the 16-campus UNC system. In this article, we look at athletes’ academic progress rates (APR), graduation success rates, and whether athletes arrive at college sufficiently prepared. Our findings show that there has been improvement in the academic standing of athletes in the UNC system, but for the major sports—men’s football, basketball, and baseball—the picture remains spotty.

The National Picture

The NCAA has developed a system that makes measuring progress superficially easy but hard to interpret. To begin with, the NCAA has its own way of measuring graduation rates. Most colleges and universities report a graduation rate to the federal government that consists of the percentage of freshmen who graduate from that school either four or six years later. For all four-year colleges in the nation, the six-year graduation rate is 57.2 percent.

In contrast, the “Graduation Success Rate” (GSR) calculated by the NCAA attempts to account for students who remain academically eligible but who transfer to another school (or leave for an allowable reason such as entering the military). Thus, under federal graduation rates, schools are penalized by transfer students because they are counted as failures to graduate. But under the GSR, students who leave while still eligible to play are essentially “erased” from that school’s roster. If they graduate from a different university, that school can count them.  

The latest six-year GSR for all Division I athletes (those who entered in 2002-03) was 79 percent, compared with the federal graduation rate for the same students of 64 percent. In the same year, the federal graduation rate for all students in Division I schools was 62 percent.

When all sports are considered, including non-scholarship sports, athletes perform slightly better than non-athletes at the same schools, even when the less generous federal measures are used.

As the graph below indicates, separating the national data by gender shows that women’s teams have better success rates than their male counterparts. Typically, there is a 15 percentage-point difference between GSRs for men and women for most cohorts since 1995. Combining scores across genders—as the NCAA usually does—raises the average scores and masks academic problems in men’s sports.

In early 2005, the NCAA instituted a new program, the Academic Progress Rate (APR) in response to evidence that many college athletes were failing to graduate. The purpose of the APR is to “track how student-athletes are performing academically throughout their college experience…by providing a snapshot for each academic term.” Essentially, the APR determines whether students have remained in school and are academically eligible to play.

The APR is calculated this way each semester: the athlete earns one point for staying in school and one point for being academically eligible. Thus a team with 30 players would have a maximum possible score of 60 points. If five members were deemed ineligible for play during the semester, the number of points would be 55. That number is then divided by the maximum points possible to get a percentage (in this case, 0.917 or 91.7 percent). That figure is multiplied by 1,000 to create an APR score (917 for this hypothetical team).

The minimum APR score is 925. If any team does not meet the minimum score, then it will face sanctions from the NCAA that could result in the reduction of scholarships it can use to recruit athletes; after three years of failed scores, the team could be stripped of its participation in postseason competition. In the first usage of these new measurement guidelines, the NCAA found that many football, basketball, and baseball teams (arguably the three main college sports) had APR scores below the minimum level.

The University of North Carolina’s Experience

In the University of North Carolina system, the picture was fairly bleak two years ago. As an August 2010 report by the UNC system for the Board of Governors indicates, in 2008 seven UNC schools—21 teams at those schools in all—had APRs below 925. Three of the schools (and five of the teams) were subject to NCAA penalties.

But in 2010, a total of eight teams at five UNC schools had an APR below 925. Only one team at one school (football at North Carolina A&T) was subject to NCAA penalties. Of those five schools, three had low scores in major sports: East Carolina received a low score in men’s basketball, North Carolina A&T received a low score in both men’s basketball and football, and North Carolina Central received a low score in men’s basketball.

The statistics in the table below (which combine the scores of four classes) show that many major sports teams in the UNC system still have APRs below the required level; graduation rates, using the federal formula, are also low on many teams. Some teams, especially women’s, are high. No women’s basketball team is below the minimum requirement.

As a positive incentive, the NCAA also gives an Academic Public Recognition Award for teams that, over multiple years, have Academic Progress Rates in the top ten percent of their sport. In 2010, all 11 Division I schools in the UNC system had at least one team that received the NCAA Academic Public Recognition Award; a total of 29 sports were recognized. Of those schools, North Carolina State University received recognition for men’s basketball, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro received recognition for women’s basketball, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill received recognition in both baseball and men’s basketball. More than 60 percent of the teams that received recognition in the UNC system in 2010 were women’s sports.

One reason for many athletes’ poor performance may be that they start out at an academic disadvantage, as indicated by the number of athletes who are accepted even though they did not take the required high school courses. An August 2010 report to the UNC Board of Governors revealed that 45 recruited freshman student-athletes (out of 1,222 total recruited freshman student-athletes in the UNC system, or about 3.7 percent) were allowed to bypass the minimum course requirements for admission in the fall of 2008 and the spring of 2009. In that same report, there were only 100 total exceptions out of the 32,292 incoming freshmen (that is about 0.31 percent). The report did not separate exempted athletes by sport.

Moreover, current academic eligibility standards do little to encourage student athletes to work quickly towards graduation. For example, in order to remain in good academic standing at UNC-Chapel Hill, a student must complete only nine hours per semester and retain a cumulative 2.000 grade point average, or the equivalent of a C. After four years of meeting these requirements, a student would have completed less than sixty percent of the hours needed for graduation.

And finally, athletes are given help by numerous tutors and mentors employed by the university. How much help they are really getting is now beginning to surface due to the scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill. Even with all of these extra tutoring and mentoring services, athletes’ graduation rates are no better than average, according to federal graduation rates.

Since the investigation of UNC-CH began, more people have been looking for answers about student-athletes. Our goal has been to make academic progress in the UNC system more transparent so that better answers can be found.

Editor’s note: The August 31, 2010, Intercollegiate Athletics Report to the Board of Governors cited above can be found as Appendix I at this site.