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Third Annual Academic Bowl Championship Series Rankings

Published:  December 16, 2009

By Ben Miller and Lindsey Luebchow

College football’s Bowl Championship Series (BCS) is in hot water again this year with five undefeated teams and still no playoff system to determine the national champion. It’s unsatisfying to fans—and apparently to members of Congress and the White House too—when a complicated series of computer rankings, coaches’ polls, and other metrics magically reward two squads. But there’s a much more unsettling story swept under the rug during these debates: the poor academic performance and embarrassing graduation rates of most of the country’s top 25 football schools.

It is with those concerns in mind that Higher Ed Watch has analyzed, for the third year in a row, the federal graduation statistics and Academic Progress Rates of the top gridiron teams. The blog’s goal is to find those teams that have players delivering both on the field and in the classroom—and those that leave too many of their players without a degree and with few career prospects.

So who would be contending for the crystal trophy in Pasadena, Calif., if the match-up was determined by academic performance? They may not be playing for the title, but Penn State and Stanford are the class of the BCS, according to Higher Ed Watch’s rankings of the top 25 college football teams.

With two-time champion Boston College dropping out of the rankings this year, Penn State’s Nittany Lions moved up from sharing the number two spot in last year’s ranking to take over the top spot. The Stanford Cardinal, which is making its Academic BCS debut thanks to an 8-4 season, takes the second spot as the only other squad to receive more than 100 points under Higher Ed Watch's calculation. These two teams are followed by Cincinnati (number four last year) and Boise State (eighth).

Meanwhile, this year’s top football contenders wouldn’t even come close to competing. In fact, the University of Texas, which is scheduled to face the University of Alabama in the title game, again comes in dead last in the rankings. The Longhorns have occupied the bottom rung now for the past two years, and only an appearance by the University of Hawaii in 2007 has kept them from the three-peat. Other poor performers are the University of Arizona, the University of Oregon, and Oregon State University.

As for the current defending champion University of Florida Gators, they will not be competing for the BCS title this year, but they can take some solace from the fact that their score increased 10 points in the rankings, moving them from 21st to 20th in the poll.

Some New Tweaks

Every Saturday, thousands of college football players provide exciting entertainment for millions of viewers across the country. But when all is said and done, only 55 percent of the players on the roster will receive a diploma. The overall figure does not tell the whole story. White players graduate at a rate of 64 percent, 15 percentage points higher than their black teammates. This gap is only slightly smaller than what is seen in the overall college student population and suggests that all the highly touted support services for student-athletes are doing little to improve the academic outcomes for black players. 

The Higher Ed Watch Academic BCS formula attempts to shed light on these graduation rate disparities and the general classroom performance of these teams. A school’s score is partially determined by four federal graduation rate calculations: the football team’s graduation rate relative to the school overall; the difference in black and white graduation rates on the team; the difference in black and white graduation rates at the school overall; and the difference between the black football team graduation rate and the overall school’s black graduation rate. That final metric is a new addition this year in response to an astute commenter, who last year pointed out that teams should get credit for graduating black players at a higher rate than the school overall, even if gaps still remain on the team. (All figures and numbers in this post reflect this tweaked formula, which has also been retroactively applied to the prior two years.) For more detailed information on the formula, see this comprehensive explanation. For all of the data from this year, click here.

Using these metrics, schools that do the best are ones such as Penn State, which graduates football players at a rate just below the school’s average, and graduates black players at a higher rate than both the institution as a whole and the white players on the team. By contrast, Texas has a 41 percentage point gap between the graduation rate for the football team and the school overall and a 36 percentage point gap between its white and black players. This is the result of graduating just 28 percent of its black players, the lowest in the poll, and 42 percentage points below the graduation rate of black students in the student body overall.

In addition to the graduation rate figures, the Academic BCS formula also compares a team’s Academic Progress Rate (APR) to the average for all football teams in the same subdivision. This measure, which is calculated by the NCAA, gives schools credit for keeping team members enrolled and academically eligible to compete in each semester. We like to include the APR because it provides a more up-to-date snapshot than federal graduation rates, which are not finalized until six years after enrollment.

Stanford performed the best on the APR measure with a mark of 984 out of 1000, a score that is 43 points higher than the average for other high-level football teams. That is not surprising, as it was the only school in the top 25 to receive public recognition from the NCAA for its academic success. At the other end, Arizona’s APR of 924 certainly will not be winning it any awards.

It is important to note that the Academic BCS calculation purposefully excludes the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate (GSR). This measure is supposed to be an improvement over federal graduation rates because it gives institutions credit for students that transfer elsewhere or leave school to go pro but are still academically eligible. Unfortunately, this measure exists only for student athletes and so does not allow us to make comparisons to the school overall, a crucial part of the calculation.

Gridiron and Graduation Glory

There’s a false perception that college athletics, particularly high-profile sports like football and basketball, opens gates for students from lower-income backgrounds. This myth is supposed to end with either a professional sports career, or at least a free college degree. But the reality is that only a very small number of college football and basketball players ever turn pro, and of the rest, nearly half leave school without a degree. That’s not an open gate; that’s a broken contract that leaves many former college athletes with nothing more than past glory that is of little use for workplace success.

The authors of this post are former Higher Ed Watch writers. Ben Miller, who wrote Rethinking the Middleman: Federal Student Loan Guaranty Agencies while at New America, is currently a policy analyst at Education Sector, where he writes for the blog The Quick and the Ed. Luebchow, who created our annual BCS Rankings series and won fame and fortune doing so, is currently a second year law student at Yale University. 

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