Two undefeated college football teams, Auburn University and the University of Oregon, will go head-to-head in the upcoming BCS National Championship game. The game will be one of five high-profile match-ups in the Bowl Championship Series early next month.
Undoubtedly, the student athletes playing for Auburn and Oregon are proud to be representing their schools in the championship game. But as Higher Ed Watch has noted in the past, there are aspects of college football that no one should be proud of -- from the booming commercialization of college sports, to the unsavory role of agents and runners in recruiting, to the academic struggles of student athletes that are too often overlooked in favor of a successful season.
With these issues in mind, Higher Ed Watch presents the Fourth Annual Academic Bowl Championship Series: a look at how football schools would stack up if academic success determined a team’s Bowl Championship Series standing. Unlike the BCS’s mysterious and controversial ranking formula, we use the federal graduation rates and academic progress rates (APRs) of teams to rank which college football programs are keeping academics as a priority for their players.
If academics determined the Bowl Championship competitors, Oregon and Auburn would not be playing the championship game this year. They would be ranked twentieth and twenty-first in the BCS standings. This is actually an improvement for Oregon over last year’s Academic BCS, when the team placed twenty-third.
So who would be contending for the crystal trophy in Glendale, AZ, if the match-up was determined by academic performance? Stanford and Boise State are the class of the BCS, according to our rankings of the top 25 college football teams. That’s impressive, when you consider that both schools are in the top ten athletically as well -- Stanford is ranked fourth, and Boise State comes in tenth in the BCS standings.
The Academic BCS Formula
Higher Ed Watch uses several calculations in order to estimate how a college football team is faring academically. The formula takes into account academic success both in relation to other football teams, and to other students at the school.
Four federal graduation rate calculations help determine a school’s score: the football team’s graduation rate relative to the school overall; the difference between black and white graduation rates on the team; the difference between black and white graduation rates at the school overall; and the difference between the graduation rates of black players on the football team and the school’s overall black student population.
Additionally, we also take into account a team’s Academic Progress Rate (APR), the NCAA’s measurement of the success or failure of a team to move its students towards graduating.
For all of the data from this year and the three previous Academic Bowls, click here. A more detailed explanation of our formula is available here.
This Year’s Results
Overall, the top 25 teams have a 54 percent federal graduation rate for their players. Black players are 15 percentage points less likely to graduate than their white peers -- a wider gap than what is seen in the overall population of students at schools (where the gap between black and white students averages around 12 percentage points).
Three of the top-ranked BCS teams also excel in the Academic Bowl Championship Series standings: TCU, Stanford, and Wisconsin. Oklahoma and Arkansas, ranked seventh and eighth in the BCS, perform only slightly worse in the Academic Bowl rankings -- coming in ninth and twelfth, respectively.
This year, one of the poorest performers is Michigan State, which had a 38 percentage point gap between the graduation rate for the football team and the school overall – the largest disparity among the 25 teams. Meanwhile, the black-white graduation rate gap is widest at Florida State, which awarded degrees to 92 percent of its white players, but only 47 percent of its black players. And finally, black players fared worst at the University of Hawaii, where only 20 percent end up graduating.
The Bowl Championship Series has delivered some great football games over the years, despite coming under frequent criticism for its rankings process. However, as college football and the BCS continue to thrive, there are endemic problems that need to be addressed. Colleges need to make sure that they consider their student athletes to be students first, and they must work harder to close the graduation gap between black and white teammates. Giving a kid a football scholarship is only worthwhile if he leaves college with a meaningful degree. Otherwise, the college is exploiting him for commercial profit and leaving him dangerously unprepared for the workforce. Remember only a very small number of players in the BCS this year will end up going pro and, of the rest, only slightly more than half will graduate. What’s to become of the others?
In full disclosure, I’ll be rooting for the Badgers when they play in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. The team is fifth in the Academic BCS ranking --not bad -- but black players on the Wisconsin team are still 28 percentage points less likely to graduate than their white team mates. I hope the day comes when I can watch college football without feeling guilty -- but unless colleges change their ways dramatically, this won't happen any time soon.
Update 12/15: This post has been updated to reflect the most accurate data possible on team graduation rates. Some numbers and team rankings may be different from those listed in the original version.