Are student-athletes better prepared to complete a college degree in a reasonable amount of time than the general student body? Given the stereotypes many people share about “jocks,” this may seem like a startling question. Yet, the NCAA released evidence this week that claims to demonstrate that student-athletes graduate at a very high rate, often at much higher rates than other students at the same institutions. My local newspaper, the Louisville Courier Journal revealed this news today on the second page of the sports section. The front page of the same section featured local athletes modeling new uniforms. Seriously.

In any case, here are the NCAA numbers and claims:

The NCAA released its annual report on graduation rates Tuesday and proudly declared that college athletes are earning degrees at record rates and outpacing their fellow students by nearly all measures.

For the first time the graduation rate for both the one-year snapshot of incoming freshmen (in 2004-05) and the four-class measure (covering the years 2001-04) hit at least 80 percent. The one-year score was 82 percent, bettering the record 79 percent from the previous three reports. The four-year average was 80 percent, breaking the previous all-time high of 79 set in 2009 and matched in 2010.

This data is striking, especially when compared to graduation rates for all students in college. Of the million-plus students who enter college every fall in the United States, Forbes reports that just over half will graduate in six years. For non-elite institutions, the rate is 40%. A NY Times story from September 2009 quoted economist Mark Schneider saying that many universities are now “failure factories.”

Why do so many students fail to graduate within six years? The NY Times article discusses a then-new book that studied 200,000 students at 68 colleges. It found that low income students often fail to graduate because college is too expensive. Somewhat more ambiguously, many students and colleges have allegedly embraced a culture that does not expect students to graduate in a timely fashion. This is described as an institutional failure of accountability (see also this).

A more recent study funded by the Gates Foundation and discussed in the LA Times in September found that nearly 75% of students are now part-time because of jobs, family pressures, etc. “Only one-quarter of students attend full-time, live on campus and have few work obligations.” Part-time students have 25% graduation rates after 8 years, according to that study. The study examined students “from the California State University system and not from the University of California or the state’s community colleges.” That would seem to cover a middle-range of students — not the highest quality students in the UC system, nor the potentially struggling students in junior colleges.

For many years, my University has been earnestly trying to improve its six-year graduation rates for undergraduates. It very badly wants to be affiliated with Phi Beta Kappa and low graduation rates are a barrier to entry. The on-line biography of University President Jim Ramsey touts the improvements made in recent years:

The quality of UofL’s freshman class has improved each year, with the average ACT score of incoming freshmen climbing to 24.5 in 2009 from 20.7 in 1995. The university’s graduation rate has soared 60 percent since 2001.

I don’t know if these are the latest numbers, but very recent data from the 2009-2010 academic year reveal that the University graduates just 48.4% of its entering class within six years. However, according to the (draft) Business Plan 2020, the University intends to improve that by 20% by 2020 and thus achieve a 60% rate. That will not be an elite-level rate, but it will be significantly above national averages for comparable institutions.

And since the graduation rate was 33% in 2004, the above data do show real improvement. In the College of Arts and Sciences, the achievement is often credited to some changes implemented by the Dean — such as a larger and better-trained advising staff. However, some of the success may also be due to the University’s tougher academic standards (implemented over the last 20 years since I’ve been on campus). Entering students are now better prepared for the rigors of college — and less-qualified students (as measured by entering test scores) are now in other schools. Additionally, some credit may be due to the changed social and cultural environment. When I arrived, the University was a commuter school with very few dorms or on-campus residents. The University has since built many new dormitories and houses a sizable portion of the student body. Campus life is much different.

Nonetheless, the NCAA data reveal that athletes have much higher graduation rates than other students at Louisville. As the evidence from today’s local newspaper reveals, this includes the football and basketball teams:

At the University of Louisville, athletes in all sports who came in as freshmen in 2004 graduated at an 81 percent rate. Football players were at 66 percent and men’s basketball 56.

The article points out that the federal government also publishes data about graduation rates, and it finds a miniscule difference nationwide, 63% rates overall versus 65% for athletes. Among other things, the government uses a different technique for calculating how transfer students are counted.

Also, NCAA numbers are apparently a bit inflated this year because they counted Ivy League athletes for the first time. The NCAA says that change helped in football, but had a minor influence on the overall numbers.

In any case, what lessons can be learned here for “failures factories”? Also, what can improving universities like mine learn? After all, faculty and department administrators here and elsewhere remain under strong pressure from Deans and other higher officers to find ways to improve the graduation rates for the entire student body.

It would seem that an athletic scholarship solves many of the problems identified by the academic studies explaining low graduation rates. After all, many athletes are on scholarship. According to the NY Times in March 2008, the NCAA reported nearly 140,000 division I and II scholarships in 2003-2004. The average amount of funding was just over $8400 — or $10,400 with football and basketball included in the count. That’s far from a full-ride, but it undoubtedly reduces economic pressure on those athletes and their families. Sure, student-athletes have to “work” by putting in many hours practicing and competing, but this effort involves a voluntary extracurricular activity that they might enjoy. It has to beat a part-time job at the UPS shipping hub, which is where many Louisville students work.

Second, athletes often have access to academic tutors, regular meal plans, and other perks that regular students do not have. Someone in the Athletics Department sends every instructor multiple messages during the academic term to make sure that student-athletes are performing well enough in classes to remain eligible for competition. Surely that alters the cultural experience for these athletes and helps assure institutional “accountability”

I’m not certain how much this issue is on the minds of the Occupy Wall Street social movement, but the problems reflected in the data referenced throughout this piece surely demonstrate that American inequality has many perverse and difficult-to-overcome problems throughout society. If families cannot afford to pay for college outright, then their sons and daughters end up spending six, eight, or more years trying to balance work, school, and family life. Too many end up without a college degree despite many years spent seeking one.