Bowl Championship Series marks return of the student-athlete

Tom Karol Contributor
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College football players, particularly in the highest-performing athletic conferences, have reputations as athletes first, students second — with little or no regard paid to study or graduation.

But while some have proposed paying NCAA pigskin players for playing, and dropping the pretense of academic achievement entirely, this year’s Bowl Championship Series could put the smack talk about gridiron greats to rest.

The graduation rates of the two best teams in college football have been steadily rising. And while this year’s championship game may not have the scholaship luster of a Harvard-Yale match-up, it will feature two of the best academic squads in the country.

On Jan. 7, the No. 1-ranked University of Notre Dame will take on No. 2, the University of Alabama. Both schools scored impressive numbers on the NCAA’s latest Graduation Success Rate (GSR) index.

Notre Dame graduates 97 percent of its football players, a number only Northwestern University could match among Bowl Subdivision schools. Alabama has the seventh-best college football graduation rate, at 75 percent.

This year’s final game will feature the highest-ever combined rankings of the two competing schools.

The top 10 BCS-ranked teams have a wide range of Graduation Success Rates:

  1. Notre Dame (97%)
  2. Alabama (75%)
  3. Florida (75%)
  4. Oregon (64%)
  5. Kansas State (58%)
  6. Stanford (90%)
  7. Georgia (69%)
  8. LSU (77%)
  9. Texas A&M (69%)
  10. South Carolina (55%)

Division I men’s football players are completing their college degrees at the highest rates ever. The overall graduation rate for all FBS football programs is 70 percent, an increase of one percentage point from last year.

NCAA athletes in all sports who entered college between 2002 and 2005 graduated at a rate of 80 percent.

The GSR measures graduation over a six-year period. The NCAA developed the statistic at the request of university presidents in an effort to boost academic results. The latest figures, released Thursday, are for students who entered college in 2005.

“It sends exactly the right message,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said. “There’s some illusion out there that being a great athlete and being a great student are incompatible. Those institutions prove exactly the opposite. … When you’ve got whole teams performing at that level, it sends exactly the right message to the whole world.”

Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford and chair of the NCAA’s Committee on Academic Progress, said, “It starts with who you admit into your program, making sure you admit student-athletes who can handle the academic requirements to remain eligible.”

“The institutions that have succeeded have put some thought into providing the academic support that student-athletes need to meet the challenges.”