A murky formula for athletes’ graduation rates

‘No impropriety’ in Rosen’s resignation from ACLU

The six-year graduation success rate for basketball players who entered Iowa State University in 2008 was 75%. That’s pretty impressive. Except the actual graduation rate was 6%.

The graduation success rate for basketball players at the University of Iowa in that same class was an even more impressive 100%. Except the graduation rate was really 30%.

And the graduation success rate for Drake University basketball players in that class was 80%. Except the graduation rate was truly 40%.

It turns out you have to listen very carefully when folks at Division I schools talk about — and boast about — the graduation rates of their athletes. For the National Collegiate Athletic Association, worried about the low actual graduation rates of athletes, lets universities calculate “graduation rates” differently from the way the rates are calculated for non-athletes.

As the basketball-player figures show, the difference can be huge.

The NCAA rate — developed to mask the lack of academic success of some athletes — is cynically named the “graduation success rate.”

“Graduation rates of college athletes, especially those who played football and men’s basketball, [had become] embarrassingly low at far too many schools [when using] the same equation that the federal government traditionally used to calculate the annual graduation rate of America’s four-year universities,” Joe Nocera, a New York Times sports-writer, writes in “Indentured,” a new book about the NCAA.

So a few years ago, “the NCAA simply changed the criteria.”

The formula for fixing graduation rates is set by the federal government. It’s quite simple: It takes the number of incoming freshmen at a school and then calculates how many of them graduate from that school within six years.

The NCAA “success rate” also takes the number of incoming freshmen, calculates how many of them graduate within six years — but then eliminates from the equation every athlete who dropped out without graduating so long as the athlete was in good academic standing. Athletes who drop out to enter the draft, to take a job, to marry a girlfriend, to try another school, to join the Marines — all are basically considered never to have enrolled.

Example: If 10 students enroll, five go on to graduate and five drop out, the federal graduation rate is 50%. But if those are athletes, the “graduation success rate” is 100%. The dropouts aren’t counted if they were in good academic standing when they left. (And if an athlete transfers to a new school and actually graduates, that school gets credit for her in its “graduation success rate.”)

So Brady Ernst, the Iowa State freshman basketball player who this spring said he is transferring, will always be assumed never to have been at Iowa State, in the eyes of the NCAA. Same with Royce White, who left Iowa State as a sophomore in 2012 to enter the NBA draft. If Iowa football star Desmond King had opted for the NFL draft after last season — as he was considering — he would have been considered a non-person at Iowa, by NCAA definition.

Which rate to use can have big financial implications for some coaches. Kirk Ferentz’ contract at the University of Iowa guarantees the coach a bonus of $100,000 “if the student-athletes on the University of Iowa football team achieve an annual graduation rate of over 70%.” In the latest year, the graduation rate was 56%, but the “graduation success rate” was 71%, according to NCAA figures.

Which number counts for Ferentz? A spokesman for the Board of Regents says the contract refers to the federal graduation rate. So no bonus for the coach.

Iowa State’s football numbers for the latest year: 65% “success” rate, 45% graduation rate.

At Iowa and Iowa State, only two groups of athletes entering in 2008 — the latest year for which six-year statistics are available — had real graduation rates as high as the NCAA-calculated “graduation success rates.” The men’s golf team at Iowa and the women’s gymnastics team at Iowa State each had 100% rates in both categories.

Overall, the graduation rate for athletes at the University of Iowa was 74% for that entering class of 2008. But the “graduation success rate” was 89%, according to the NCAA. At Iowa State, the overall rate for athletes was 62%. The “graduation success rate” was 80%.

The two big Iowa universities are usually precise in saying “graduation success rate” when talking about athletes, but they rarely define that and a person could easily infer that a graduation success rate is the same as a graduation rate. And sometimes the schools themselves seem to get the rates confused.

A 2010 Board of Regents Annual Report talked about a “student-athlete graduation rate” at Iowa State University of 79%. In fact, that was the “graduation success rate.” The real rate — the one the federal government uses — was 65%. …

The seemingly sudden resignation last week of Jeremy Rosen as head of the Iowa branch of the American Civil Liberties Union seemed strange — and raised some questions. But there was nothing sinister about it, says a guy who was involved.

“The issue was just simply that the position wasn’t a good fit, and that’s why he is no longer there,” he says. “I want to head off any questions about impropriety or bad behavior or anything of the sort. Nothing like that was ever an issue. Because the job wasn’t a good fit, the departure had been worked on for some time. The only thing that was abrupt was Jeremy’s announcement on his Facebook page, which created a reasonable assumption that there were far worse things at play than there actually were.”

Rosen, who had been in the job 18 months, told his Facebook friends that “Folks, some difficult news to report — Thursday will be my last day at the ACLU of Iowa….I won’t be writing publicly on here about any reasons related to my departure….”

“He mangled the rollout,” the guy told Cityview, “and that’s come at some expense to his reputation, but there really was nothing behind the curtain about it.”