The NCAA released its annual report on graduation yesterday, and President Myles Brand touted a jump in graduation rates among football players as well as the fact that student-athletes are graduating at a higher rate than the general student body, even as men's basketball players lagged well behind both groups.
But the most significant aspect of the graduation report -- which is set up according to standards determined by the U.S. Department of Education -- is that this likely will be the last time coaches, administrators and the NCAA look at the data in this fashion.
Coaches have long railed against the manner in which graduation rates have been reported, in large part because transfers from a program are counted as students who fail to graduate even if they leave in good academic standing and graduate from another school.
"If programs are not graduating young people, I think that's one thing," Texas football coach Mack Brown said yesterday. "But if they're eligible when they leave your program, I don't think the coach should be responsible for them."
In response to criticisms such as that, the NCAA next year will issue a separate report that takes transfers into consideration and won't penalize schools for students who leave if they were on track to graduate.
"I hope that becomes the standard for all," Brand said.
Perhaps more groundbreaking is the NCAA's attempt to give a more "real-time" glimpse of individual schools and their sports programs. Beginning as early as December, the NCAA will release data that charts programs from semester to semester, indicating what percentage of players on a current team are on track to graduate.
"We'll be able to project into the future what graduation rates will look like, who's being affected and how," said Todd Petr, managing director of research for the NCAA.
The new means of evaluating programs is part of the NCAA's effort at academic reform, which Brand has presented as an earnest attempt to hold athletic departments accountable for the academic performance of their students. Eventually, schools could face the loss of scholarships should they fail to graduate players. Even the most ardent critics of big-time college sports are hopeful such measures will improve the academic performance of student-athletes.
"I think it could help, but I don't think there ought to be any loopholes allowed in it," said William Friday, the chairman of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. "That's the only way you're treating the student fairly. If you admit a student that has no academic qualifications and doesn't meet the standards of the institution, that's unfair and immoral. We need to keep pressing to make sure students are prepared to graduate and get jobs upon graduation. I think these steps are very serious steps toward that objective."
The overall graduation rate of 62 percent for all student-athletes in Division I remained even from last year -- and above the student body average of 60 percent -- and is the highest since reports began being compiled in 1984. The breakdown by gender -- 70 percent of female athletes and 55 percent of males -- also remained steady from last year.
The graduation rate for Division I-A football players rose to 57 percent from 54 a year ago. Men's basketball remained the same at 44 percent. The report reflects information on the incoming freshman class for the 1997-98 academic year.
"I think it's a good news story," Brand said of the change in football. "They've listened to the concerns the university presidents had, the general public had, the media had, and they're responding in a positive way."
Brand said he doesn't expect the new academic reform to be reflected in graduation rates until the incoming class of 2003 graduates.
The Knight Commission, which has monitored college athletics since 1989, meets in Indianapolis this week and expects academic reform to be discussed at length.
"There's a lot of work to be done," Friday said. "We've got to keep pressing forward."