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Higher Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Higher Education Initiative

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Academic Bowl Championship Series

Published:  November 27, 2007

At the end of every college football season, there's an uproar about the "Bowl Championship Series" (BCS) formula that decides which teams get to play for the National Championship and in various bowl games. This year is no differentsports commentators are in a tizzy about which teams will get picked by the formula in the final BCS ranking next Sunday. Get ready for the final weeks of moaning and groaning about why certain components of the BCS formula are unfair and biased.

Put to the task by ESPN's Tuesday Morning Quarterback, we at Higher Ed Watch developed an alternative BCS formula to draw attention to the academic performance of big-time college football teams and colleges in general. Just like Higher Ed Watch did last year in partnership with another think tank Education Sector for the NCAA college basketball tournament, we set out to see which top-ranked college football teams perform best in the classroom.

Only 56 percent of Division I-A football players entering college between 1997 and 2000 graduated within six years of initial enrollment. And its likely that many of those players who left with a degree did not gain workforce-ready skills, because they were tracked into "jock majors" or were required to meet informal, deflated academic standards for student-athletes.

Some colleges, however, are doing a better job than others ensuring that football players are (as much as possible) regular students who go to class and complete their degrees. Our Academic BCS formula re-ranks the current BCS top-ranked college football schools.

Higher Ed Watchs Academic BCS Formula

Unlike the reams of information available on the athletic performance of college football teams, public data on the academic performance of student-athletes is scarce. But there are two available data points: graduation rates and the NCAAs "Academic Progress Rate" (APR) for each team.

Graduation rates are the most important data on academic quality that we have, as they count football players who actually left school with a degree in hand. In addition, graduation rates are disaggregated by race, which gives us the opportunity to look at how well teams are supporting their black and white players respectively. The education attainment gap and achievement gap are major education policy concerns nationally.

The NCAA's APR measure is a real-time indicator of the progress of each team's student-athletes toward a degree. But its a much less rigorous test of academic performance than students actually graduating, and thus weighted less in Higher Ed Watch's Academic BCS formula. Half of each school's APR score is based on student-athletes just being enrolled as students. The other half is derived from the number of student-athletes completing 20 percent of their courses toward a degree each year, with no minimum GPA required.

Our Academic BCS formula starts with each football teams four-class average federal graduation rate, which includes all football players who entered college between 1997 and 2000 and graduated within six years of initial enrollment. Football teams then earn or lose points based on (A) the gap between the team's graduation rate and the overall school's graduation rate (its important to consider the context of an athletes academic experience); (B) the gap between the team's black-white player graduation rate disparity and the overall school's disparity (its important to expose and penalize teams with significant achievement gaps); and (C) the teams NCAA APR score in comparison to the median APR for all Division I-A teams. For a full explanation of our formula, click here.

The Results: Best and Worst Performers

Applying the Academic BCS formula to the teams currently ranked in top 25 in the BCS poll produces a very different ranking. Instead of perennially-dominant LSU, Ohio State, and Georgia sitting at the top, Boston College, Cincinnati, and Auburn would be headlining the national championship discussion.

Its not surprising that Boston College leads the Academic BCS poll, given that its athletes have traditionally graduated at high rates. The BC football teams graduation rate is one of the highest in the nation at 87 percentalmost equaling the schools overall graduation rate of 91 percent. Only football powerhouses like Stanford and Duke have higher graduation rates. (Don't congratulate the BC Eagles too much, though. There are other problems at BC, and around the country, with the professionalization of its football players and the tax-exempt status of big-time programs.)

Its also not surprising that five of the six teams who played in the last four National Championship gamesTexas, Ohio State, LSU, Oklahoma, and Floridaare pulling up the rear of Higher Ed Watch's Academic BCS poll. Texass football team has always been an academic bottom-dweller, graduating only 32 percent of its players (and only 22 percent of its black players), in comparison to a 75 percent graduation rate at the school overall. Ohio State is dangerously close to being penalized by the NCAA for its low APR of 928 (penalties start at 925).


A few schools that most fans assume perform well in the classroomfor example, Virginia, Wisconsin or Illinoisare not top contenders in the Academic BCS ranking. It's largely because their football teams aren't doing nearly as well in graduating football student-athletes as the overall school is in graduating students in general. Virginia graduated 65 percent of its football players who entered the school between 1997 and 2000but the university graduated 93 percent students overall. That's a 28 percentage point gap.

Other teams with average numbers get hurt by significant gaps between the graduation rates of their black and white players. Missouri appears to be doing not particularly bad at graduating its football players, and its APR is right at the national median. But its overall football graduation rate masks a large black-white gap: 40 percent of Missouri's black football players who entered the school between 1997 and 2000 graduated, compared to 68 percent of its white football players. In other words, black Missouri football players are more than a third less likely to graduate than white football players, while the overall school's black-white graduation gap is much lower at 9.5 percentage points. Oregon is sitting at the bottom with a stunning 49 percentage point graduation gap between its black and white football players (26 percent vs. 75 percent). Michigan's football team, which recently dropped from the BCS poll, rivaled Oregon with a 45 percentage point gap.

Other teams that are generally not considered academic powerhousesfor example, the University of Cincinnatiare doing a relatively good job supporting their football players. At Cincinnati, 71 percent of football players who entered the school between 1997 and 2000 left with a degree, in comparison to only 49 percent of students at the school overall. In addition, Cincinnatis football team had only a 3 percentage point black-white graduation gap, while the overall school had a 19.5 percentage point gap.

Why the Academic BCS Matters

Why should you care? Most people will probably read today's Higher Ed Watch blog post and think: "Thats nice that Cincinnatis players are doing well academically. But Im really more concerned about my Texas Longhorns making it to the ____ Bowl."

But fans should care because college football players should be students first. When their football demands overwhelm their academic demands, players too often have little choice about which to prioritize, and it's not the books. But the future of most players depends on getting a college degree, not securing an NFL contract.

You should also care because there is a larger college quality issue at stake. Even if the University of Southern California is graduating 54 percent of its football players, there is no way to evaluate the quality of that degree. Is John David Booty, USCs quarterback, learning as much with his sociology major as Todd Reesing, Kansass quarterback, is with his double major in economics and finance? Maybe, but there is no way to compare college quality across majors or schoolsfor athletes and college students in general.

The first step toward improving college quality is transparency. The dearth of data on academic performance, for athletes and all students in higher education, is a large obstacle to meaningful evaluation. Tomorrow, Higher Ed Watch will delve farther into the college quality issue and provide all of the academic data currently available (used in our Academic BCS formula) on the top 25 football teams in the country. Check back for all the details on your favorite team.

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