While the National Collegiate Athletic Association has spent all summer putting a happy face on its annual Division I Graduation-Rates Report, others caution that, to avoid being misleading, the rates need to be put into perspective.
Claiming that Division I student athletes who receive athletic scholarships continue to graduate at a higher rate than non-athletes, the report is the fourth issued by the association since Proposition 48 — which requires student athletes to meet certain academic requirements in order to be eligible to play sports as freshmen — went into effect. The requirements included a minimum standardized test score, plus a certain grade-point average in a core of college preparatory classes.
According to the report, the number of student athletes who graduated in the class entering in 1989 was 14 percent higher than the class that entered in 1985-86, the last year before Proposition 48 became effective. During the same period, the total number of student athletes went up only 2 percent.
Also, according to the report, approximately 20 percent more Black student athletes graduated in the class that entered college in 1989 as compared to the class entering in 1985.
NCAA Executive Director Cedric Dempsey was enthusiastic about the report, saying, “Now that we have four years of data from classes that entered college after Proposition 48 went into effect, I’m pleased to see that the goal of higher graduation rates was met. By asking high-school student athletes to do a better job of preparing academically for college, we’ve ensured that more of them will be successful in getting a degree.”
But, there are those who believe the NCAA is taking too much credit for the improved rates while continuing to ignore those who are denied athletic scholarships because of the rigid academic standards. A disproportionate number of those who fall short of the standards are Blacks, generally tripped up on the required standardized test score. Blacks tend to score lower on such tests than their white counterparts. Marilyn Yohe, a program associate with Fair Play, which has rigorously protested Proposition 48, said the NCAA has put up a smoke screen with the graduation rates because, “as we’ve looked over the past ten years or so, graduation rates as a whole have gone up. The graduation rates of athletes and non-athletes reflect an overall trend in graduation rates rather than the result of stricter academic standards.”
As a result, the graduation rates “really don’t say a thing,” Yohe said. “I think the main thing I get out of them is it has been consistently similar with athletes and non-athletes and initial eligibility rules don’t make a big difference in graduation rates. But even if there was an increase in graduation rates, it comes at a high price. It comes at a price of excluding athletes who would have graduated if they had been able to attend.”
NCAA research showed that a high proportion of student athletes who fall short of the newly instituted academic standards would actually graduate from college if given the opportunity. Despite such evidence, the NCAA chose to adopt the standards anyway.
“We have to look at who we are harming,” Yohe said. “If you raise academic standards, graduation rates may go up. But you will continue to exclude people who have every right to go to school and the right to play” athletics. Yohe said that instead of looking at the academic standards as the key to graduation rates, the NCAA should look more to other positive initiatives that have been taken over the past few years. These include the NCAA requirements of progress towards a degree, better tutoring for athletes and better tracking of athletes once they arrive at college. “There are a number of ways to support student athletes [other] than to eliminate them from the outset,” she said.
She added that the core and grade-point average is a better predictor of college success than are standardized test scores because they “have less of a negative impact on minority and female students.
But Yohe said she is not optimistic that the NCAA will alter the regulations. “There have been lots of opportunities to change the rules,” she said. “We’ve done research to show discrimination and they haven’t responded to that. Maybe a lawsuit or other outside force will work.”
Alex Wood, head football coach at James Madison University and vice president of the Black Coaches Association, which has opposed Proposition 48 since its inception, said the NCAA’s report on graduation rates “works to their advantage from a public relations standpoint.”
He, like Yohe, said that a 14 percent increase in graduation rates obscures the fact that an untold number of people were eliminated from the potential graduation pool by the initial eligibility standards. “I’m happy that rates are Lip for everybody; it is a great accomplishment,” Wood said. “But my concern would be to look at it from a totality. A 14 percent increase of what? Who are these people? Who is getting in and not just who is graduating. And how many of those graduating were [those who didn’t achieve initial eligibility]? But nobody seems to care about that — about those who didn’t get in or didn’t graduate. Nobody is going to find out because those numbers are not favorable.”
Suggestion: Punish the Culprits
Wood is also concerned about those schools that consistently end up on the far side of graduation rates — the schools that annually fall far below the average, posting zero graduation rates, or 10 percent, or 20 percent.
“Those are the culprits that need to be pointed out, identified and pulled out in public and have their dirty laundry aired,” he said, adding that the NCAA, which must certify athletic departments, needs to take measures to prevent certification of those schools. Concurring is Lee A. McElroy, athletics director at American University and a member of the NCAA Certification Committee.
“When you see low graduation rates, you have to first look at the mission of the university. I’ve talked to some who have significantly low rates who say they are an open-admissions institution and their graduation rates fit the profile of those schools.
“On the other hand, if the profile of Student athletes is comparable to the general student body and athletes are not graduating at the same rate, you have to assess the program to see if resources are best applied and if there is a commitment to educating student athletes. There has to be a commitment to athletes, a commitment by the institution to provide services and help people be successful after they’ve left those institutions.”
McElroy said there is a misconception when it comes to graduation rates, particularly as they relate to Black student athletes. “Statistical experts say that (Proposition] 48 is working for Black athletes because they graduate at a higher rate than other Black students,” he said. “That is not the level [on which] to compare it. You have to do it apples-to-apples — with other student athletes who get similar aid. If they are successful there, it is simple. The climate of the campus is more conducive to African-American athletes than it is to Black general students. African-Americans graduating at the same or higher rates is the real measure. If all things are equal, then why are we not graduating? That is what we need to look at.”
McElroy believes that the issue is the quality of instruction student athletes get in the required core curriculum. In that, Blacks have responded positively to the increased standards — an indication that the core curriculum is a better indicator of success in college. He also is concerned about the denial of opportunity for those who fall short of the required academic standards. “Whether they go to community college, to work, or to prison — that would bean interesting study,” McElroy offered.
And despite the continued progress in graduation rates, there is concern by some from within the NCAA. Adverse Sports Trends Ursula Walsh, director of research for the NCAA, said the increase in graduation was predicted with the introduction of academic standards. But, she said, “You have cut out people who may have graduated. That was predicted also and it happened. Those who concentrate on graduation rates say [Proposition 48] is a success. The data shows that. The data also shows an adverse affect on minorities.”
She also noted that participation by Blacks in college sports has gone down slightly. Of the 13,638 students who entered schools in 1985 and received athletic scholarships, 3,723 (27 percent) were Black. In the class entering in 1989, 3,491 out of the 13,963 students who received athletic scholarships (25 percent) were Black.
As Walsh sees it, although graduation rates for Black student athletes are not back up to what they were before, “Who knows what the number would be if there weren’t these rules. It is going to be interesting to see what happens in the future with the new rules.”
She said that while the NCAA views the progress in graduation rates as “significant, ” other factors have to be weighed besides initial eligibility standards. “Athletes have some advantages that non-athletes don’t have,” Walsh reminded. “One, they have athletic-related aid. Then, there are those doing well in sports so there is the motivation to continue. With the non-athlete, there is often fluctuation in and out of school. And, you have to assume that in some places there is the academic support for athletes that is not in place for others.”
Still, the graduation rate of Blacks overall can be termed “deplorable,” she said. “It is not where we’d like it to be. But on the other hand, there is an access problem.” That, she said, should be addressed by working on more equal opportunity for education prior to college. If there is anything we know it is that there are not equal education opportunities. Let’s make sure everyone is universally better prepared.”
She concluded: “If we had equal educational opportunity, we wouldn’t need Proposition 48. As long as we don’t, we have to make sure the resources are available for them to realize their potential.” Charles Farrell, a frequent contributor, is director of the Rainbow Coalition’s Fairness in Athletics.
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