Graduation gap persists between athletes and students in ACC


The Atlantic Coast Conference and its member schools publicly take pride in modeling a healthy compromise between excellent athletics and academics.

But researchers at the College Sport Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill are wondering if student-athletes — at least the ones who turn a profit for their schools — are representative of that compromise.

The answer is no, according to the third annual Adjusted Graduation Gap report released Thursday by the institute. The report compares student-athletes’ graduation rates with those of their full-time peers.

Although its gap closed five percentage points from 2011, the ACC ranks last among the NCAA’s 30 Division I men’s basketball conferences, boasting the largest gap in graduation rates between players and the general full-time student body: 36 percentage points. The average is a gap of 20 percentage points.

For women’s players, the gap is considerably smaller, averaging 9.2 percentage points. Still, the ACC ranks 20th.

Woodrow Eckard, a professor of economics at the University of Colorado-Denver, developed the metric used in the report. He said the goal of the report was to create an apples-to-apples comparison of student-athletes to other full-time students.

“The purest comparison would be to compare athletes to full-time students with full-time jobs,” he said. “But how many full-time students do you know with full-time jobs?”

Other metrics of student-athletes’ academic performance fail to separate part-time student graduation rates from those of other full-time students, he said.

As a result, overall graduation rates used by the NCAA are brought down by part-time students, who take longer to graduate than their full-time peers. This oversight, Eckerd said, obscures the gap in graduation rates that his team’s report reveals.

UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham declined to comment on the report. Other representatives from the athletic department were unavailable.

Pressure to perform

The report’s authors said they prefer to let the data speak for themselves when it comes to discussing the gap’s causes and implications.

“Graduation rates are not good or bad,” said Richard Southall, director of the research institute and an associate professor in UNC’s department of exercise and sport science. “It’s just a gap. But you want to ask yourself, why do you have these large gaps and what are causes for them?”

Mid-major conferences, such as the Southwestern Conference, tend to have a smaller gap than their major conference counterparts — on average, it is 15.6 percentage points.

While student athletes in major conferences leave school to play professionally more often, revenue-related motives are another likely cause of disparity at the conference level, said Mark Nagel, associate director of the research institute and an associate professor in the department of sport and entertainment management at the University of South Carolina.

Programs in major conferences are typically under more pressure to win year after year — a pressure that sometimes bends admissions standards, he said.

“At the major schools that are very selective, those students have a general ability to do work at high levels,” Nagel added. “You’re putting athletes on campuses where they’re ill-prepared for the level of academic rigor that’s required, and you’re compounding that with the commitment they’re required to make to their job.”

The word job is critical.

The report’s statistical procedures hint at a specific condition that the authors all said should be acknowledged: Division I athletes are expected to perform a full-time job at their sport while maintaining good academic standing.

Revenue athletes, Nagel said, are especially subject to television scheduling that rarely takes academic obligations into account.

Accepting the facts

The NCAA has stated that student athletes graduate at a higher rate than the general student bodies of its member institutions.

But Nagel points out that while that might be true as an aggregate of all divisions and sports, it doesn’t hold up for the most profitable athletes.

“When you ask which sports generate the vast majority of revenue and ask what the grad rates are in those sports, the data really begin to change,” he said.

Southall said the gap should be addressed by acknowledging that student athletes often enter college with different motives and abilities than other students and by treating those athletes accordingly.

“We need to honestly and openly accept that many of the players that come to the University of North Carolina have a primary motivation of playing professional basketball,” he said.

“What the data suggest strongly is that we need to openly address these issues instead of developing metrics or graduation rates that fundamentally don’t deal with this economic reality.”

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