INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — More men's basketball players are taking advantage of the biggest shot of their life and earning a college diploma.
The latest results from the NCAA's annual Graduation Success Rate showed a record 74 percent of Division I basketball players from the 2005-06 freshmen class left school with a degree, a 6-percentage point increase over the one-year measurement from the class of 2004-05.
It's a stunning turnaround for a sport that has traditionally lagged others in the closely watched report.
"I'm pretty confident it's a reflection of the seriousness of the athletes and the coaching staffs to keep students in school and focused on their classes," NCAA President Mark Emmert said during a conference call. "They've really been stepping up. We look at that and we're extremely pleased by it."
Football Bowl Subdivision players also improved their scores by 1 percentage point in the one-year snapshot, hitting 70 percent for the first time.
The overall four-year graduation rate, covering freshman classes from 2002-03 through 2005-06, was 80 percent, matching last year's record high. Using that measure, men's basketball and FBS players both came in at 68 percent, with both sports showing modest gains (1-percentage point increase in FBS and 2 percentage points in basketball).
NCAA officials believe the improvement in its two biggest money-making sports indicates that the more stringent requirements for incoming freshmen, tougher standards to maintain eligibility first passed in 2003, and the focus on the GSR and Academic Progress Rate reports are making an impact.
Last year, Emmert upped the ante by pushing for — and getting — the board of directors to impose harsher sanctions including postseason bans for teams that fall below the mandated APR cutline of 900. That report is released in the spring. Connecticut's men's basketball team is the first major school in one of the two big sports to miss the cutline and will be ineligible for this year's NCAA tournament.
This week's report showed UConn had a four-year graduation rate of 11 percent.
"Ideally, we'd like every student-athlete who enters college graduate. That's why they go there," said University of Hartford President Walt Harrison, the longtime chairman of the Division I Committee on Academic Performance. "That's what college is all about, and we think we're helping to enable them to achieve their dreams."
Some contend the NCAA's numbers are flawed because they're calculated differently than the federal statistics, which critics say may portray a more accurate picture of what's actually happening in classrooms across America.
While both the NCAA and the feds evaluate students over a six-year span, the NCAA's numbers include transfer students who leave school in good academic standing and earn a degree somewhere else. The feds do not count anyone who leaves their first school, regardless of whether the student or athlete actually earns a degree.
A year ago, the government reported a record 65 percent of student-athletes had earned degrees, compared with 63 percent of all students. This year's one-year numbers were the same. The NCAA does not calculate figures for the overall student body.
David Ridpath, past president of the NCAA watchdog The Drake Group, pointed out the federal numbers include part-time students and that can skew the stats, too.
"I don't think any measurement is perfect," said Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University. "But I think with the APR and everything else, the question is are they academically prepared when they get to college, and if they are, are they taking a major that is going to benefit them for the next 50 years of their life."
Others argue athletes should graduate at a higher rate than the overall student population because they receive benefits such as tutoring and academic counseling that most students cannot afford and do not receive.
Emmert said he agreed that athletes should outdo their peers and cited two familiar football names — Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III — as examples of what can be achieved both in the classroom and on the field. Luck and Griffin both have diplomas and went 1-2 in April's NFL draft.
"We think they (athletes) should be graduating at higher rates and they do graduate at higher rates," Emmert said. "But I would also tell people to pay attention to what it takes to be a competitive athlete in college. It's an enormous task and these young men and women are pretty amazing when you look at the demands placed on them."
Not all of the numbers were impressive.
The one-year measurement for all college athletes dropped from 82 percent in 2004-05 to 81 percent in 2005-06.
And though the government numbers showed athletes in every sub-group but one graduating at a higher rate than their peers, white male athletes now trail the white male students, 64 percent to 63 percent.
Of the 36 men's and women's sports included in the four-year numbers, nine held steady and five incurred slight declines. The grad rate in men's rifle, men's skiing and women's water polo each had 1-percentage point decreases, while men's lacrosse incurred a 2-percentage point drop. Men's water polo, women's bowling and women's ice hockey each had 3-percentage point increases and women's fencing improved by 5 percentage points.
Each of the other sports showed modest gains of 1 or 2 percentage points.
But the solid improvement in football and basketball was notable.
In the 11 years the NCAA has collected data, men's basketball players have had an 18-percentage point increase and black men's players have seen a jump of 21 percentage points in earing degrees. FBS players have seen their number improve by 7 percentage points over the same span.
Emmert couldn't quibble with those stats, though he hopes to see them continue to increase.
"We don't think of getting your degree as Plan B, we think of that as Plan A and those were almost the same words Robert Griffin III used last year," Emmert said. "We are certainly going to continue moving forward with this expectation of continuing progress. For right now, we're delighted to be able to report greater success."