In a few weeks, the Florida Gators and Oklahoma Sooners will face off on college football's biggest stage in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) National Championship game. Unfortunately, many of the college seniors playing in this game will not be walking across the graduation stage next May. Instead, their schools will revel in the short-term glory of gridiron success, while the players will have to face the long-term consequences of joining the workforce without a college degree.
Higher Ed Watch's second annual Academic BCS rankings show that Florida and Oklahoma are not the only elite football schools doing a dismal job of graduating their players. Only 55 percent of Division I-A football players leave college in six years with a degree -- and that number drops precipitously at most big-time programs that solely focus on counting Ws and Ls instead of As and Bs. It also doesn't take into account the poor quality of the education many are receiving to begin with. Jock majors don't provide job-ready skills.
So who would be contending for the crystal trophy in Miami if the match-ups were determined by academic performance? According to our rankings, it would be a showdown between Boston College and Northwestern University. Meanwhile, this year's top football contenders -- Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, and Alabama -- wouldn't even come close to competing.
The Academic BCS Formula
Higher Ed Watch's Academic BCS formula uses all of the available public data on the academic performance of football players to compile its own ranking of the nation's college teams. Sadly, the number of data points is minimal. The NCAA only releases team graduation rates, disaggregated by race, and Academic Progress Rates (APR), a measure of how players are progressing toward a degree. (If we had anything close to the amount of information available about athletic performance, we might get some meaningful indicators that explain why players aren't graduating, and whether their degrees actually mean something.)
The formula starts with the team's most recent federal graduation rate, which includes four classes of players who entered college between 1998 and 2001 and graduated within six years of initial enrollment. Then, each team gains or loses points based on (A) the gap between the team's graduation rate and the overall school's graduation rate and (B) the gap between the team's black-white player graduation rate disparity and the overall school's disparity. Finally, the team gains or loses points if its Academic Progress Rate exceeds or falls below the Division I-A median. For more detailed information on the formula, see last year's blog post and this comprehensive explanation. For all of the data from this year and last year, click here.
The 2008 Winners and Losers
Boston College owned the competition for the second consecutive year, taking the top spot in the Academic BCS rankings. But two Big Ten schools, Northwestern and Penn State, gave the Eagles a closer run for their money than last year's second and third place teams. With the highest graduation rates in the rankings (88, 78, and 75 percent, respectively) and Academic Progress Rates in the 80th to 90th percentile of all Division I-A teams, these three schools are models of academic and athletic success.
At the other end of the rankings, Michigan State and Georgia Tech join last year's bottom-feeders, Texas and Oregon, as the worst performers. Of the top five teams in the final football BCS rankings, Florida comes in with the lowest graduation rate of 36 percent, while Oregon has the lowest APR. Oregon also has a shocking 41 percent disparity between the graduation rates of its white and black players -- far and away the largest gap of the polled teams.
In general, the Academic BCS scores were slightly higher than last year -- hopefully a sign that teams are paying more attention to the student part of student-athlete. The two most-improved schools are Brigham Young and Ohio State, which jumped by nearly 12 and 10 points respectively. The Buckeyes, however, still have a long way to go to join the elite academic football teams: Ohio State graduates only 49 percent of its football players and has a black-white graduation rate of 32 percentage points.
Unfortunately, not all of the teams saw an improvement in their scores from last year. Two low-performing teams, Florida and the University of Southern California, both scored even lower this year, dropping five and six spots, respectively, in the Academic BCS rankings. Unfortunately, these teams continue to sacrifice academic achievement for football success. They seem content using their players as semi-professional athletes in order to remain in the national spotlight, instead of supporting them as students progressing toward a degree.
The Moral of the Story
Every year, college football fans get caught up in some "major" controversy with the BCS rankings. They spend hours talking about obscure statistics and cursing computer formulas. This year, it was Oklahoma and Texas fans battling it out for the right to play in the Big 12 and National Championship games. Texas fans were devastated when they lost the rankings fight.
But the real tragedy for this team is that only 40 percent of its players, and only 27 percent of its black players, will graduate. Texas' football players put the University on the national stage. And what do they get in return? Besides the precious few that will make it to the NFL, most will leave school without a degree and with few career prospects.
Teams like Boston College and Northwestern show that it is possible to field a competitive team with true student-athletes. But without real pressure from the NCAA and other outside sources to graduate football players with meaningful degrees, the top teams will continue to game the system. And college football will continue down the slippery slope of professionalization and commercialization. It's a win-win situation for almost everyone. Except, of course, for the large number of players who fail to graduate and never make it to the NFL. They will continue to bear the burden of their teams' success.
Ben Miller contributed data to this piece.
Correction: Due to a data error, this piece originally included Florida State in the rankings instead of Pittsburgh. The Panthers have a score of 54, putting them 11th in the rankings.