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Which Graduation Rate is the Right Graduation Rate?

One would think “how many football players graduated” would be an easy question to answer. It is easy enough to find the actual number, but calculating the rate football players graduated and whether they graduated is complicated by politics as well as math. At this point there are enough different methods that no matter what story you want to tell, you can find a method to back it up.

Currently You Can Find the Following Measures of Academic Progress for Division I Student-athletes:

  • The Federal Graduation Rate (Fed Rate)
  • The Graduation Success Rate (GSR)
  • The Academic Progress Rate (APR)
  • The Adjusted Graduation Gap (AGG)
  • The Coaches’ Rate (“I have graduated every four-year player”)

There are Pros and Cons to Both Rates

The Fed Rate is the toughest measure, since schools get credit for neither transfers who leave in good standing nor do they get credit for transfers into the university who graduate. The Graduation Success Rate accounts for those students, but may be too lenient in treating student-athletes who leave before graduation. The APR has the benefit of being calculated more frequently, but tracks many more things than graduation. The Adjusted Graduation Gap attempts to make an apples-to-apples comparison, but ignores the effect of being a student-athlete and NCAA policies. The Coaches’ Rate has the benefit of being true in most cases a coach touts it, but is only brought up when it benefits the coach.

A parallel battle is being fought over what is acceptable performance, regardless of how it is calculated. Most tend to fall at or near the idea that student-athletes should graduate at the same or better rate than non-athlete students at a university. Given the value of athletes to a university, especially those in revenue sports, there is an argument that they should earn degrees at a significantly higher rate than non-athletes. On the flip side, since the academic preparedness of student-athletes is often below the general student population, perhaps a slightly lower graduation rate is still a noble achievement.

One option would be to combine the pluses and minuses of these systems into one super rate. The difficulty of the Fed Rate, the inclusion of transfers of the GSR, the term-by-term measurement of the APR, the like-to-like comparison of the AGG, and the fuzzier components of how coaches like graduation rates to be presented. The problem is that such a rate is likely to be either incredibly complicated, essentially a detailed report for each team and school or will be boiled down so far to some like a letter grade that the causes of problems or improvements are impossible to discern.

The other major hurdle for a super rate is the lack of good data for the general student population. Between APR reporting and the Eligibility Center, the NCAA has an incredible set of data on student-athletes. Either now or in the very near future, the NCAA will be able to find out if correlations exist between things like the number of high schools a prospect attends and the number of times he or she changes majors. Or the correlation between a prospect’s freshman English GPA and how often he or she transfers as a college student. No organization has a comparable set of data for students at all NCAA institutions.

The other option is to use all of the rates, plus many more. Each rate tells a different story, is harder or easier to post a good score, or is subject to more or less manipulation. Should coaches graduate all their players who stay for four years? Of course. Should they also be graduating more and more freshman they bring in over time? Absolutely. Should football players improve against full-time students instead of the entire population? Of course.

Is There a Problem with Having One Graduation Rate?

The danger of coming up with one true graduation rate is that at some point the job will be done. 100% graduation is impossible, no matter what the measure. Once you pick a rate and a measure of success, at some point schools are doing “enough.” But as long as there are new calculations, new measures, and new definitions of success, colleges are pressed to continuously improve, first just how they graduate athletes, but hopefully how they educate them at some point.

So once a coach achieves his or her goal of graduating all four-year athletes, the goal should move toward an 85% GSR or 960 APR. After that, perhaps toward an 85% Federal Graduation Rate or +10 AGG. Then maybe graduating athletes at a better clip than full-time students who were in the top 25% of the incoming class and who take on no student loans.

The goal of academic reform should not be to simply achieve a level of satisfactory performance by student-athletes. It should be to instill in schools, either through the carrot or the stick, a willingness to constantly improve. To continue to strike a better balance between academics and athletics, between opportunity and preparedness.

How do you think the graduation rate should be measured? What standard should student-athletes be held to? Let us know in the comments section below, or connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+!

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