From Kronborg castle, your gaze commands the narrow strait separating Denmark and Sweden. Turning landward, it is too easy to imagine the cloaked figure of Hamlet darting among the guards and parapets, fog swirling after his foot-falls, despite the passage of centuries, where he pursued a ghost and Marcellus observed that something was “rotten in the state of Denmark.” This article questions whether something is rotten in Alabama, via an analysis of its football program’s Graduation Success Rate compared to the school’s overall ranking.
I came about writing this piece as the offshoot of a larger work on which I am working on with @andrewwinn, one that looks at what actually happens to recruits in the Alabama football program. Obviously, one of the potential outcomes for student-athletes is that they graduate. That got me wondering…
To measure a football program’s academic performance, the NCAA has developed two metrics over the last decade or so: Graduation Success Rate (GSR) and Academic Performance Rate (APR). We’ve covered them extensively here at HLS and detailed explanations would, I think, distract from my point, which, I promise, I will get to shortly.
Suffice to to say, however, that these two metrics are used to gauge the academic performance of Division I (FBS) athletes in a manner that differs from the federal rates applied to other students due to the unique issues facing student-athletes, and football and basketball players in particular. Simply put, those students will transfer from one school to another for the opportunity to play ball. Under the federal rules, a school is penalized for that decision, whereas the NCAA metrics only penalize a player if they transfer when they do not meet academic eligibility requirements. The presumption is that a student-athlete in good standing will graduate.
I chose to use GSR versus APR for this quick study because it presents a sturdier platform, I think, upon which to gauge long term graduation trends. While APR is intended to present a snapshot of a program’s academic health and is the metric upon which the NCAA’s Academic Performance Program assesses penalties for non-compliance, GSR is focused on graduation rates over time, i.e. the federally-tracked six year cohort.
When you look at Alabama’s GSR over the years, and the NCAA makes data available going back to 2004-2005, you can see that they have dramatically improved their scores. In fact, “dramatically” is too weak a word. For example, for the 2004-2005 year, Alabama’s GSR was 39, based upon the 1998 cohort. Notre Dame’s was 98. In the most recent group, 2014-15, Alabama’s GSR is 86. Notre Dame’s has actually fallen to 93.
Alabama’s progress up the charts has been remarkable for its consistency. Of the eleven years graded, in only one did Alabama’s score drop from the previous year. Notre Dame has seen its GSR drop four times, year-to-year, in that same period. And when Alabama goes up, it goes up with a bullet: from 39 to 44 for 2005-06, to 49 for 2006-07, to 55 for 2007-08, to 67 for 2008-09. The Crimson Tide jumped from 69 in 2010-11 to 75 in 2011-12. Notre Dame’s GSR has never risen by more than one point, year-to-year.
When the University of California Athletics analyzed its teams GSRs, its Director of Athletics, Mike Williams, noted that “[i]t takes a while to move a four-year average, such as the GSR, and we recognize that.” Not at Alabama, Mike. Not at Alabama.
Something interesting, though, is happening to Alabama even as its GSR is rocketing upwards. The overall ranking of the University is plummeting. In doing the research for this piece, I came across a chart in the Washington Post that tracked the changes in US News and World Reports rankings over the years. You can find it here.
Currently, Notre Dame is ranked 18th in the nation. Alabama is ranked 96th, tied with FSU and St. Louis University. For 2014-15, Notre Dame was ranked 16th. Alabama was 88th. The year before that, Alabama was ranked 86th. The year before that, 77th. The year before that 75th. In 2010-2011, the last year for which data was provided, Alabama was ranked 79th. Notre Dame was 19th.
So what’s going on at Alabama? Well, for one, they’re graduating more players. In fact, they put an historic number of graduates on the field against Michigan State and have implemented a “graduation” helmet sticker, which is actually pretty cool.
They started from a laughably low score, 39, too. It’s relatively to make leaps from there. But almost fifty points?
Perhaps they’re just riding the wave of a general trend in public education, especially in the SEC, where money-making sports are insulated from the budgetary woes buffeting the institutions and academic programs. If academically rigorous programs are being hacked away and the football programs are getting gobs of money to improve their academic counseling, what do you expect the GSR to do? Alabama may be uniquely surfing that wave, though, as they are expanding at a time when many public schools are contracting overall. At LSU, the governor is threatening to cancel the season if Louisiana’s budget isn’t fixed.
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