INDIANAPOLIS — NCAA President Mark Emmert keeps touting the record-breaking graduation rates of Division I athletes. Critics keep balking at the interpretation of those numbers, citing recent academic scandals.
The NCAA's newest graduation report, released Tuesday, showed 84 percent of athletes who entered college in 2007-08 earned a degree within six years, a 2 percentage-point increase over last year's previous high mark. The four-year average of 82 percent is another record, up 1 percentage point from the 2013 report. Emmert also said there were increases in almost all demographics in the one-year measurement — some rare good news for a governing body in tumult.
"It's the highest (rate) ever by a good measure and it's up virtually across the board — football, basketball, all other sports, men, women, all races included," Emmert told The Associated Press.
The federal numbers show a similar trend. Over the four-year period covering freshmen classes from 2004-07, athletes graduated at a rate of 65 percent, 1 point higher than the general student body. The 2006-07 freshmen class also set a record, 66 percent, compared with 65 percent of non-athletes.
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The difference in rates is that the NCAA counts athletes who transfer in good academic standing and graduate from another school. The feds do not.
Those who question the NCAA's stats contend the higher numbers are skewed because athletes have more access to tutors, learning specialists and multimillion-dollar academic centers — all of which are intended to keep players academically eligible and on track to graduate. They also believe athletes are sometimes being advised to take easier courses.
"What really is happening is that athletes are being funneled into the majors of least resistance," said Oklahoma professor Gerald Gurney, president of The Drake Group, an NCAA watchdog. "They really, based on their athletic commitment, do not have an opportunity to pursue an education at all, much less a world-class education."
This year, the critics have even more ammunition thanks to a series of high-profile academic scandals.
In August, Notre Dame suspended five football players for alleged academic misconduct. One player has returned to practice but none have been reinstated to play.
Earlier this month, media reports said Syracuse's football and men's basketball teams face an NCAA hearing over alleged rules violations that include academic impropriety.
And last week, former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein issued a report accusing the University of North Carolina of academic fraud. More than 3,100 students — about half of them athletes — benefited from sham classes and artificially high grades over nearly two decades, Wainstein wrote.
Emmert said Monday if Wainstein's report is accurate, it "strikes at the heart of what higher education is about."
Kentucky sets record
University of Kentucky athletes joined in the record breaking. UK's NCAA graduation success rate for the freshman classes of 2004-05 through 2007-08 was 81 percent for all scholarship athletes combined, up two points from last year.
Kentucky's federal rate of 58 percent is one point shy of last year's school record.
"Completing degrees is a foundational piece of future success," UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said.