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The 2012 Academic Bowl Championship Series

Published:  December 10, 2012
2012 Academic BCS

The results from our sixth annual Academic BCS are in, and we have a Cinderella story that rivals any BCS bowl game. If Academic BCS had a title game, Northwestern University would match up against… Northern Illinois University. Talk about an upset.

The Bowl Championship Series games, which pit the top-ranked football schools against one another, are great to watch. But it’s worth taking a step back to examine the darker side of NCAA football: too many elite football schools are doing a dismal job of graduating their players. Most of these players won’t make it to the NFL, which means that while the school has profited from them, all they can walk away with is a college degree. The trouble is that the graduation rate for football players is often much lower than it is for the rest of the school.

To focus on the student side of collegiate sports, the Education Policy team at the New America Foundation developed the Academic Bowl Championship Series rankings for Higher Ed Watch. Here’s how our formula works:  We calculate the difference between the entire football team’s graduation rate versus that of the male students at the university; the graduation gap between black and white students on the team versus the same gap among the overall school’s male population; and the gap between the graduation rate of black football players versus the black males at the school.* We also factor in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate (APR).**

We only rank the top 25 BCS teams, thus the winners of our Academic BCS have displayed prominence both on and off the field. For a full explanation of the formula, click here. For the full breakdown of scoring for this year and past years, click here.

This map displays the difference between a football team's graduation rate versus a school's overall male graduation rate. The lower the number, the better. A negative rate means the team graduates players at a higher rate than the overall male population at the school.

The Winners and Losers of the 2012 Academic BCS

Northwestern has taken the crown in our Academic BCS this year, but we’re sure they won’t rub it in anyone’s faces, especially not Stanford. The Wildcats had a 90 percent graduation rate among its football players -- the highest of any team. The school has no disparity between its white and black football players, and even graduates its black football players at a slightly higher rate than African-American men overall at the school.

The real upset is Northern Illinois University, ranked second in the Academic Bowl. Northern Illinois is riding high to the Orange Bowl as the first Mid-American Conference team to ever bust into the BCS, haters be damned. Although the university’s overall male graduation rate is only 51 percent, it graduates its football players at a much higher rate than the rest of the student body – 66 percent. And while the overall graduation rate for black males at NIU is a dismal 30 percent, for black male football players, the rate goes up to 63 percent. Sure, that rate is still much lower than say Notre Dame’s 84 percent rate, but NIU gets a lot of points for helping out its football players. This may be one instance in which the NCAA’s academic standards actually helped improve the academic outcomes of a school’s players.

Don’t get too cocky, NIU fans. The school may do a great job graduating football players when compared to the overall student body, but we’d like to point out that’s because you don’t do a very good job graduating your general student body. A 51 percent overall graduation rate is nothing to celebrate.

What about the two teams competing in the title game? The undefeated University of Notre Dame takes on Southeastern Conference powerhouse University of Alabama in what should prove to be an exciting match up pitting the two best defensive teams in all of college football against each other.

For the first time ever, the top-ranked BCS team, Notre Dame, grabbed one of the top five spots in the Academic BCS standings. Notre Dame prides itself on its graduation rates for football players. Its graduation success rate is 97 percent – astoundingly high for the top-ranked team – and Notre Dame is rightly held up as a model of both high academic and athletic success. So why is the university ranked fifth by our calculations? The NCAA’s graduation success rate (GSR) accounts for transfer students and students who leave the program in good academic standing before their athletic eligibility runs out. Unfortunately, the data that the federal government relies on to determine graduation rates for colleges overall doesn’t account for transfers, which means the GSR isn’t comparable. So we use federal graduation rates for all metrics to stay consistent. Using the federal graduation rate, Notre Dame slips; it only graduates 83 percent of football players. That’s a big drop from the 96 percent of males the school graduates overall, and that’s what took Notre Dame down in the Academic BCS rankings.

Alabama came in seventh, not a bad showing. But Alabama graduates its white football players at a much higher rate than its black players – 72 versus 56 percent.

Florida State, coming in dead last, is also worth a special mention since it is the only team with a negative score. While FSU graduates 100 percent of its white players, only 33 percent of its black players leave with a degree. That disparity is completely unacceptable, especially since the school graduates black males at a rate of 65 percent overall. The Academic BCS formula rightly sinks them for it.

While there are a lot of issues with the high-stakes, big-money world of college football, the very least these schools can do for their players is help them graduate. Still, compared to other years, where the top two teams on the field often rank low in our academic standings, this year both Notre Dame and Alabama break the top ten. That’s a first for Academic BCS, and something to cheer about.

* We use the standard 4-class average graduation rate in our BCS rankings. This rate does not factor in students that who transfer out of a college or who leave school to play professionally. Using this rate allows us to best compare a football team’s graduation rate to the overall graduation rate of students at that college.

** With the APR, teams get points for eligibility (having players who have good enough grades to play sports) and for retention (having players who don’t drop out of college). Higher Ed Watch takes the APR into account in our formula, but assigns less weight to it than it does for other measures that we believe are more important.

This year's Academic BCS rankings were published yesterday by TIME.com.

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