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Perception of college athletes undergoing change for the better

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A perception exists that college athletes, student-athletes as they are called, are in college for few reasons other than to use their scholarship as a stepping stone to a professional sports career. In some cases that may be true. Men’s basketball and football players seem to represent this point of view.

A few select players are the exception, not the rule. The overwhelming majority of college athletes earn a degree within 4-6 years.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has released the latest figures on the Graduation Success Rate (GSR) for college athletes. Some of the results provide facts that conflict with popular perception.

The Division 1 GSR for college athletes now stands at 86 percent overall, the highest ever and 12 points higher than 2001. The current rate is determined among those who entered college in 2008 and earned a degree within six years.

The four-year rate shows equally impressive numbers. The percentage of those earning degrees in eight semesters is at 83 percent.

“Student-athletes continue to make important gains in the classroom, and the NCAA and its member schools are thrilled with their success,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert.

Florida public universities are near the average. Central Florida has achieved the greatest success with 93 percent graduating. Florida State is second at 85 with South Florida and North Florida following at 83 percent. Florida shows an 81 percent GSR, while Miami, a private university, has an 89.

The Graduation Success Rate, created in 1995 by the NCAA, gives a clearer picture of student-athlete performance than that of the traditional Federal Graduation Rate. The GSR takes into account student transfers and does not count those who leave school with athletic eligibility remaining, such as those bound for the NBA and NFL.

This is similar to what Florida did with its own K-12 graduation rate beginning in 1998-99. Transferring students previously fell through the cracks, thereby creating an inaccurate picture of who was actually earning diplomas.

Under the old federal system, UCF’s success rate would be measured at 55 percent. FSU and North Florida would both have the highest total at 63.

The federal rate is the only way to compare how student athletes are doing in comparison with the rest of the student body. Athletes are earning degrees at a better rate than non-athletes. Among Division 1 student-athletes, 67 percent obtain degrees while 65 percent of the student body is graduating.

Men’s basketball players earned an overall 77 GSR. Duke, Notre Dame, Miami and Florida State were at 90 or above. In the SEC, Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky were at 90 and above. Florida had a 71.

Division 1 football averaged a 76 GSR. In the ACC, Duke, Boston College and Wake Forest were above 85. Florida State came in at 73.  In the SEC, Alabama was highest at 86 followed by Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Missouri, all over 80. Florida had a 78.

It is not just about men’s sports. Women college athletes do well in meeting their academic goals.  For example, women’s basketball players earned degrees at an 89 percent rate.

Four SEC teams, including Florida, earned a 100 percent GSR. Five ACC teams did the same with Florida State earning an 85 percent GSR.

Among women’s soccer players, 11 ACC programs earned GSRs of 90 or better, including FSU. The lowest GSR among SEC women’s soccer programs was 85. Florida was 96.

The NCAA has some arcane rules and doles out punishment in an inconsistent fashion, but their commitment to accurately assess the academic performance of athletes is worthy of praise. It also shows a growing commitment from the individual universities to actual help those on athletic scholarships prepare for life after sports.

It says a great deal that a championship football program like Alabama and an equally successful basketball program like Duke would  have such high GSRs. People are likely more surprised at Alabama’s GSR.

These may just be statistics, but they represent real young people who are learning the value of teamwork in athletics and individual achievement in the classroom. They deserve to have the perceptions changed.

The NCAA report, with a link to look up any school or conference, can be found here.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at

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