By Michael Marot
The Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS -- New NCAA President Mark Emmert has seen the academic culture changing in college sports, and now he has the numbers to prove it.
Student-athletes are earning degrees at record rates and graduating at higher rates than other students, and football players and black men's basketball players are making big gains in the classroom, the NCAA said Wednesday in releasing its annual Graduation Success Rate figures.
The report shows 79 percent of all Division I athletes entering school between 2000-01 and 2003-04 earned a degree within six years. That matches last year's record number.
The latest freshman class, from 2003-04, also hit 79 percent, tying the record mark set each of the past two years.
"The reality is that student-athletes are doing at least as well as other students at universities," Emmert said during a conference call. "The dumb jock myth is just that, a myth."
Traditionally, student-athletes have graduated at higher rates than the overall student body and this year was no different. According to federal numbers, student-athletes had a 64 percent graduation rate compared with 63 percent of all students.
The numbers differ because the NCAA includes transfer students in its calculation. The federal rate does not, and NCAA officials maintain their numbers are more accurate.
The biggest gains came in the highest-profile sports.
One-year measurements showed that the grad rates among Football Bowl Subdivision programs improved from 66 percent in 2009 to 69 percent this year, and that the rates of black men's basketball players jumped to 60 percent -- a three-point increase over 2009 -- for the first time.
Emmert, the former president at Washington who officially took over the NCAA three weeks ago, is not surprised.
"What I have seen as a university president is that the culture of the football and basketball programs on campuses has had a really important shift," he said. "The coaches, the staffs have been really attentive to the fact that they have to be more aware of academic success than they have in the past. As we move forward, we have to continue to imbed that deeply into the culture of athletic programs and we still have a ways to go."
Walt Harrison, a key player in the NCAA's academic reform movement under the late Myles Brand, said all of this was part of the original plan.
The 2003-04 freshman class was the first to face new eligibility requirements based on their high school performance and also making progress toward a degree.
"We can talk about numbers, but what it really means is that real lives, real student lives have been improved," Harrison said. "I think we are seeing changes in the men's revenue sports, and we anticipated that would take some time to move. But now we're seeing that very significantly."
Additional data shows grad rates at 18 of the top 25 schools in the BCS standings were at least 60 percent under the four-year measures. Stanford (86 percent), Miami (81 percent), Iowa and Virginia Tech (79) and Missouri (71) posted the best scores.
Only two schools, Oklahoma (44) and Arizona (48), fell below 50 percent in both measures.
Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said the low rate in football was because of turnover on the coaching staff, something that has stabilized in recent years. He added that the overall athletics department had an increase of 4 percent in the federal rate with another 2 percent expected next year.
"There was a large percentage of turnover in our program from one staff to another and that directly impacts your graduation rates," he said. "We've had much more stability and we're in much better shape academically for the future."
Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said the low numbers were partly a result of having 16 players taken in the NFL draft in 2005 and 2006.
"It automatically reduces the rate if you may have good graduation with whoever's left, you're never really going to make up for he person that left," he said. "Once they leave, you can't really get that back."
The same issue had an impact in men's basketball, where 10 teams in the final Top 25 poll produced grad rates of 60 percent or worse based on the NCAA calculations. Three schools scored in the 30s -- Maryland (31), Temple (33) and Baylor (38). Connecticut, which is under NCAA investigation for recruiting violations in the men's basketball program, was at 31 percent.
UConn coach Jim Calhoun blamed his team's low number on "mitigating circumstances."
"We've had more kids leave early than anybody else in the last 10 years," Calhoun said. "That's a problem and it's going to be a problem for us.
"Are you going to call Ray (Allen) in and say, 'Ray, if you'd stayed, you'd be making a hell of a lot more money?"' Calhoun added. "He's made, we think, about $175 million, not $175,000 thus far."
Villanova and Brigham Young each had 100 percent. Duke, the national champion, and Butler, the national runner-up, were both at 83 percent.
And Washington, where Emmert was president from June 2004 until taking the NCAA job, had a grad rate of 44 percent in men's basketball. Emmert defended coach Lorenzo Romar and the efforts the university has made to improve those numbers.
"I know in my six years there, we added significantly to the academic support program and Lorenzo Romar has been working very aggressively in the players he's been recruiting," Emmert said. "He's had a number of players go on to the NBA, but I think the program there, that's a program I feel very good about and I think they're moving in the right direction."
Associated Press Writers Pat Eaton-Robb in Storrs, Conn., and Jeff Latzke in Oklahoma City, Okla., also contributed to this report.
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