The 2011 Academic Bowl Championship Series

article | December 07, 2011

    Maggie Severns


The final college football Bowl Championship Series rankings were announced on Sunday: Alabama and Louisiana State University (LSU) will go head-to-head in this year’s National Championship game come January.

No doubt, watching Alabama try to beat the undefeated LSU team for the second time this season in an SEC vs. SEC match-up has the potential to be great football. The Bowl Championship Series, college football’s ranking system that matches up top Division I teams for a series of annual post-season bowl games, is perennially disliked for the opaque formula it uses to rank which teams are best but loved for the many, high-intensity football games it has matched up over the years.

Still, we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the sport’s dark side. In the classroom, Division I college football teams often fall short. The fact that a player’s college football career is valued more than his academic career is often accepted as the status quo in Division I college football. But these players put in a lot of work for their teams and are compensated solely with college scholarships—and how much is that scholarship worth if a student athlete doesn’t graduate? Though some will go on to have lucrative pro football careers, most won’t, and the players who aren’t bound for NFL glory would benefit from having college degrees to fall back on.

With these issues in mind, policy researchers at the New America Foundation’s Higher Ed Watch blog have for several years used a formula to rival the Bowl Championship Series’s rankings. The Academic BCS measures how well a team supports the “student” side of its student athletes.

Unlike the BCS’s controversial ranking formula, the Academic BCS transparently compares data on team graduation rates and academic progress rates (an NCAA measure of academic success) to the performance of other teams, as well as to regular students at BCS colleges. The results are a look at how football schools would stack up if academics decided a team’s BCS ranking.

The 2011 Academic Bowl Championship Series Rankings

If academics were central to the Bowl Championship Series, top-ranked LSU would fall to 13th in the rankings. The biggest factor dragging down LSU’s performance is the fact that black players at LSU are a whopping 32 percentage points less likely to graduate from college in 6 years or fewer than their white teammates.

The first-place academic team in the BCS rankings is Penn State. 80 percent of Penn State football players who enroll as freshmen currently graduate from college in 6 years or fewer, a respectable grad rate for any sports team or even a university at large. (If you exclude students who transfer or leave the college to play professionally from the dropout rate, 87 percent of Penn players graduate in 6 years or fewer.)

Additionally, there is no black-white graduation rate gap among players on the university’s football team. It’s disappointing to say that is very rare for Division I football. Stanford, example, does an extremely good job of graduating its football players overall and was ranked #1 in last year’s Academic BCS, but the school fell to fourth this year namely because Stanford has a 21 percent gap between the black and white graduation rates for its players.

In the Bowl Championship Series rankings, Alabama barely edged out Oklahoma State for the second place seat this year, causing a stir around whether the ranking was conducted fairly. Unfortunately for Oklahoma State, Alabama triumphs in both the BCS and its academic counterpart: Alabama ranked fifth in our academic ranking and second in the regular BCS ranking, making Alabama and Stanford the only two teams to place in the top 5 for both football and academics. Oklahoma State fared worse, coming in third in the BCS and 15th in the academic rankings.


Four different calculations are used in the Academic BCS: 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.

We use the standard 4-class average graduation rate in our BCS rankings. This rate does not take into account students that transfer out of a college or leave 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.

Also important is the pool that our BCS ranking draws from. We use the top 25 teams in the Bowl Championship Series’s final standings when we make our rankings. Thus, the teams in the Academic BCS have displayed prominence on the field and, in the case of the top-ranked teams, in the classroom. A list of this year’s BCS rankings and the rankings from previous years is available here. A more detailed explanation of our formula is available here.

The NCAA has its own measure of academic success, the academic progress rate, which measures whether a team is moving its players towards graduation. 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


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    Maggie Severns