Every spring, the NCAA publishes a long, long report on graduation rates. When assessing a school's performance, the number most often cited in the press is the freshman-cohort rate, which gives the percentage of athletes who graduated from a school within six years after they matriculated there as freshmen.
That number, however, is extremely (and unfairly) misleading. Read the fine print and you'll see that if a player transfers from one school to another and graduates from that second school, he still counts as a nongraduate at the institution he originally went to. Also, students who transfer in from junior colleges are counted separately, adding to the unfortunate stigma that is often attached to jucos. Should a student-athlete leave school early to turn pro, that player also counts against the school. (Even though he might be pulling down a seven-figure salary at his new job.)
It's not the percentage of graduating athletes that's important, it's how that compares with the school's overall student body. The NCAA does include those percentages in its report, but that only adds to the confusing jumble of numbers. Given the amount of time the NCAA has spent concocting ridiculous formulas like the BCS and the RPI, it's high time it came up with a better way to keep score in the category that matters most.
It was quite the dramatic moment: John Thompson, then the basketball coach at Georgetown, tossing his trademark towel to an assistant and walking off the floor before the tip-off of a game on Jan. 14, 1989. Thompson was protesting the NCAA's passage of an amendment to Proposition 48, which required high school seniors to meet a set of academic standards in order to compete as freshmen. Thompson and many of his peers complained that those requirements would rob a generation of youngsters of their God-given right to make money for schools like Georgetown. Yet 15 years after Prop 48 first hit the books, it has restored some integrity to the increasingly professionalized world of college athletics.
From the outset, the argument against Prop 48 was flawed. Students who don't meet the standards are not forbidden to attend college; they're just not allowed to play as freshmen. Sure, enforcement can be a bureaucratic mess, but the latest NCAA statistics show that in 2000, students trying to become eligible in Division I took more college prep courses, achieved a higher GPA and scored better on their standardized tests than the students who applied in 1994. There was also an upward trend in the GPA of college freshmen competing in Division I. Best of all, Prop 48 helped usher in an era in which students are taught from an early age that if they don't hit the books, they won't play. Thousands of teenagers who wouldn't have otherwise given a thought to the SAT or ACT now spend weekends taking prep courses to improve their verbal and math skills. Most states followed the lead of the NCAA by requiring high school students to maintain a C average to be eligible for athletics. Even the most blatant basketball summer meat markets have adopted an academic component.
Says Bob Kanaby, the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, "It doesn't matter what these kids are motivated by. If the outcome is greater success in the classroom, then we're doing the right things."