Last year, NCAA Division I football programs brought in a combined revenue of over $3.4 billion for their respective schools. In this billion-dollar industry, stakes are high for colleges hoping to attract top athletes. With a lot to gain by signing a star player, football programs spend significant time and money on recruitment. But when college degrees are essential for later success, million dollar academic tutoring programs have replaced the sports car recruitment gifts of yesteryear. Despite all the money being allocated by universities to ostensibly improve players’ academic success, the relatively low graduation rate of Division I football players remains a persistent problem.
In 2012, researcher Michael Anderson found that football rankings determine a lot more than just bragging rights every year--they may also significantly affect annual revenue for top football schools. Along with increased ticket and merchandise sales, prowess on the field drives alumni giving, college prestige, and applicant quality, all of which further increase the university’s revenue. While schools with the best football programs consistently profit from leading the annual playoff list, the players who helped carry them to the top may receive little more than a long list of medical bills from their time on the team. As institutions with leading football programs rake in the cash, NCAA college football players suffer a combined total of 4,000 concussions per year, and none of them receive direct compensation while in college for their hours on the football field. Even worse, the most recent available data show that 31,420 NCAA football players failed to earn a college degree.
Universities have justified their policy to not pay football players by providing free education. But some of these schools are not holding up their end of the deal. Every year, we test whether the schools with top-ranked programs are serving their players’ academic needs. The Academic Football Playoff Series (AFPS), now in its eighth year, ranks schools using the Graduation Success Rate -- an NCAA measure that rewards schools for graduating students, but prevents them from being penalized if players leave in good academic standing (the idea being that universities shouldn’t be penalized if a student-athlete transfers or decides to go pro).
The New America formula also accounts for the disparity between a school’s overall graduation rate and the football graduation rate to ensure that schools are serving players and the general student body equitably. In some cases, we uncovered alarming disparities between the way that institutions graduate football players compared to the general student body. USC, for example, graduates its team at a rate 41 percentage points lower than the rest of its male student body.
See below for a complete list of our 2014 rankings:
While difficult to deduce exactly what has caused these disparities, a few possible explanations could be at work. First of all, football profits pay for a range of institutional needs: academic, athletic and everything in between. Over the last decade, however, universities have begun investing significantly more in shiny new academic centers for athletes, complete with tutoring staffs that far outnumber the level of support reserved for the general student body. The New York Times notes that in 2002, Georgia spent $7 million on its academic center for athletes. A few years prior, in 2002, LSU opened the Cox Communications Center for Student Athletes to the tune of $15 million.
These two schools are not alone according to a January 2013 report from Donna Desrochers at the Delta Cost Project. She found that Division I athletic programs spend between three and six times as much on athletes’ academic support as they do on non-athletes. NCAA data suggest this glut of money has not translated into significantly better results in the classroom. Despite the high price tag for its student-athlete academic center, LSU ranks 18 on our list this year and has the second lowest federal football graduation rate at 45 percent. The extra academic efforts are supposedly meant to counteract football players’ low grades, a side effect of spending long hours every day practicing, but given the relatively low graduation rates for football players compared to their non-athlete peers, their efficacy is questionable, at best.
Another explanation could be more revealing. In an increasingly competitive market, universities must constantly set themselves apart from the crowd -- rock-climbing walls may attract non-athletes to the university, but concerned parents of top high school football players want to hear that their son, who will be “paid” with a degree after four years, will have access to resources that will ensure he receives his payment. To attract top-tier athletes and guarantee a winning season, these schools are apparently willing to shell out millions. This spending on football recruitment, Michael Anderson points out, is likely to mean a great return for the school in several sources of revenue.
Regardless of whether these first-rate tutoring centers are ploys to attract better players or earnest attempts at elevating football players’ academic performance, many institutions have adopted questionable practices like admitting students they know are unlikely to graduate. A football player admitted to an elite institution with an SAT score half that of his peers would undoubtedly find it difficult to graduate even with all these resources available to him. A 2012 CNN analysis revealed that athletes on some college campuses struggle to read on a third-grade level. Louisville made it in at 21 this year on the CFP rankings, but 32 of its athletes were classified as college illiterate (having scored below 400 on the critical reading section of the SAT).
It could be that these are rare, highly unprepared students who will be picked up by the NFL so whether they graduate from college is irrelevant. But given that only 1.6 percent of Division I football players go pro, this seems unlikely. And contrary to popular belief, these are hardly isolated cases. Even worse than spending money on expensive and ineffective tutoring facilities, some schools have resorted to boosting athletes’ academic performance with fake courses, special concessions and inflated grades, such as the now infamous practices uncovered at UNC-Chapel Hill. That’s why, in our formula, we penalize schools where athletes graduate at much higher rates than the rest of the student body. Boise State graduates its football players at a rate 39 percentage points higher than the rest of its male population, which is a major red flag.
The next time high school recruits tour a university or alumni reach for their checkbooks, we hope they refer to our list before checking the CFP rankings. Schools should be measured on outcomes for all their students -- and not just how well their football teams have played that year or how fancy their buildings.