Keeping Score

The College Football Top 25 – As Ranked By Academics

The New America Foundation looks at how a team's academic performance measures up to that of the student body

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New America Foundation
New America Foundation

Northwestern University, the 20th-ranked college football team in the nation, won’t win a national title on the field this year. But the Wildcats are first in the classroom, according to the “Academic BCS,” the New America Foundation’s annual academic performance rankings of the top-25 college football teams.

Northwestern’s top finish is not surprising. But the New America Foundation’s second-best academic team, Northern Illinois — which finished ahead of schools like Notre Dame, which will play for the national championship on Jan. 7 against Alabama, and Stanford — is a more curious case. The Huskies, who earned a bid to the Jan. 1 Orange Bowl, are a surprise both on and off the field.

How did Northern Illinois finish so high? The New America rankings are not just based on raw statistics like graduation rates or the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate, which indicate how well a team is keeping its players on track to graduate. If that were the case, a school such as Notre Dame, which graduates 83% of its players, according to federal data, would finish well above Northern Illinois, which has a 66% rate.

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Instead, the New America Foundation bases its rankings on several factors: how a football team’s graduation rate compares to that of the school’s overall male student body, how a team’s black-white graduation gap compares to the male black-white graduation gap in the general student population, and the spread between a football team’s black graduation rate and the school’s overall graduation rate for black men. “Our formula is the only one out there that puts these statistics into context,” says Alex Holt, an education researcher at the New America Foundation. (New America’s formula gives less weight to a school’s Academic Progress Rate, which it considers a less rigorous test, than actually graduating).

So Northern Illinois scores major points because football players graduate at a higher rate (66%) than the Northern Illinois student body at large (51%). At Northern Illinois, 72% of white players graduate, while 63% of black football players graduate: that’s a nine-point difference. In the general population, 56% of white male students at Northern Illinois graduate, compared to 30% of black male students. That’s a 26-point difference for the student body, compared to a nine-point difference for the football team: again, New America credits Northern Illinois football for outperforming the rest of the school. Also, while 63% of Northern Illinois’ black football players graduate, just 30% of black male students graduate overall. That 33-point difference propels the Huskies to the top of the standings.

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On the flip side, look at the team from Michigan, a school with a strong academic reputation, yet finishes near the bottom of these rankings. While Michigan graduates 88% of its students, only 59% of Wolverine football players get their diplomas. While the black-white graduate gap on the football team is only four points worse than black-white gap for all male students, just 47% of Michigan’s black football players graduate, compared with 70% of Michigan’s black male students overall.

(For more details on each school in New America’s study, click here for a graphical representation of the results.)

Almost all education rankings are imperfect, and New America’s research is no different. In order to make comparisons with overall graduation rates on a given campus, for example, New America Foundation uses federal graduation rates in its data. College athletic departments have criticized these rates for understating an athletic team’s performance, since players who transfer out of a school and pursue a degree elsewhere, or leave early for the pros, count against them. To account for athlete mobility, the NCAA came up with the “graduation success rate” (GSR), which credits teams for graduating incoming transfers, and doesn’t penalize them for having players transfer out or pursue the pros. For almost all teams, the GSR is higher than the federal rate. But there is no GSR for the rest of the student body, so New America uses the federal rate to make comparisons.

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Aside from the baseline numbers, you can certainly question a methodology that gives more credence to campus context than raw performance, which puts Northern Illinois, with its 66% federal graduation rate for football, above Notre Dame, at 83% (Northern Illinois has a 83% GSR, while Notre Dame’s GSR is 97%). But no matter how you slice the numbers, as we go into bowl-game season, the study reminds us of the shortcomings of college sports. For 19 of the top 25 football teams — or 76% — their federal graduation rates are lower than those of the overall student population. On 22 of the top 25 college football teams — or 88% — more than 30% of the players fail to graduate. Using the more generous, and probably fair, measure — the GSR — 15 out of the top 25 college football teams (60%) fail to graduate more than 30% of their players.

That’s just not a winning game plan.

32 comments
steelydan0613
steelydan0613

Nothing but a silly, unfocused article followed by a bunch of "my school is better than your school " comments..............Gheez, I'm back in the 7th grade again. 


djbeattie
djbeattie

No question about Northwestern but a serious flaw ranking Clemson higher than the University of South Carolina ! Everyone in South Carolina knows our USC is far better in academics than that other school !!

fortamanda
fortamanda

This is silly.  It's Stanford with #2 (Northwestern) miles behind with the rest of the field 50+ miles back

fortamanda
fortamanda

...except Notre Dame, it's in with the top two.

khoops12
khoops12

Two words: Nabal Jefferson.

DanRevas
DanRevas

"that has nothing to do with Graduation rates. Plus, total Academic all americans counts ALL sports, not just football, including women's sports, and a large state university like Nebraska fields more NCAA sports teams than 8000 student Notre Dame. That is the only reason Nebraska has more AAs."

Get your facts straight Henry, both Notre Dame and Nebraska field 21 sports teams.

HenryKrinkle
HenryKrinkle

jerryrigging this thing to get NIU and Boise up that high with their low overall GSRs is hilarious. Notre Dame actually gets penalized because their athlete Grad rates are close to what the overall student graduation rate is(high 90s). Schools that are lousy at graduating their normal student population get a bump UP if their athletes graduate at a higher rate, but that simply means some schools have lousy academic reputations.

mmarrvelous
mmarrvelous

I'm sure the top brass at schools like NIU and BSU are already trying to advertise these rankings. Great lying with statistics. Take a look at their awful overall grad rates!

Any sane person would know that ND's #1 graduation rates and #1 BCS ranking make the Irish the best of any valid measure of academics and football this year.

GO IRISH!!! BEAT BAMA!!!

blacknbluediv
blacknbluediv

In case you have not noticed, colleges fire coaches at the drop of the hat if they don't win. Coaches are forced to take kids that should not be in college to be competitive. While they don't have the smarts and/or academic background to do all the classwork, isn't it better that they were at least exposed to college than not ever having gone? When they start evaluating coaches on graduation rates and NOT wins, things will change. Don't hold your breadth-the money is too big. Lastly, while it is a travesty that the schools make zillions and all the kids gett a crumb (free ride, etc.), the kid still has the responsibility to do the work and go to class and graduate.

tcjack
tcjack

This ranking is pretty meaningless.  If schools have basketweaving majors its no real accomplishment to stay on graduation track.  How about average SAT rank and GPA as a more interesting measure.

cp4abOlishm3nt
cp4abOlishm3nt

Despite Northwestern is No.1, the B1G conference only has three schools. SEC has six schools in the listing. If combined academics and athletics then, Notre Dame, Alabama and Stanford are 1, 2 and 3. 

DanRevas
DanRevas

Nebraska finished 8th, which wasn't bad, but I thought they would get a bump for having by far the most Academic All-Americans, with Notre Dame running a distant second.

HenryKrinkle
HenryKrinkle

@DanRevas  

that has nothing to do with Graduation rates. Plus, total Academic all americans counts ALL sports, not just football, including women's sports, and a large state university like Nebraska fields more NCAA sports teams than 8000 student Notre Dame. That is the only reason Nebraska has more AAs.

jbcribari
jbcribari

In that case, and during any other year, Penn State would be #2 in this ranking and # 1 in the Graduation Success Rate.

HenryKrinkle
HenryKrinkle

@jbcribari  

WRONG. Penn St is nowhere near the top. Notre Dame and Northwestern are #1 at 97%.

jimbo
jimbo

@jbcribari    Wrong . Northwestern has ALWAYS been tops in that especially in the Big 10.

                      P.S. has never been ahead of N.U.

G8R8U2
G8R8U2

If you're using the raw (federal) graduation rate instead of the Graduation Success Rate, the ranking is utterly useless; because several schools on that list send far more players to the NFL than the others... which is why the GSR was adopted to replace the federal rate in the first place, to reflect that disparity. Universities shouldn't be penalized for having numerous great players that can be professionals.

RyanLeBlanc
RyanLeBlanc

I fail to see how injecting race in the manner they have does anything more than highlight the potential gaps in grad rates between those two population groups. Comparing apples to apples is fine (black athlete grad rate vs. black non-athlete grad rate), but comparing the grad rate deltas between black and white athletes vs black and white non-athletes tells us nothing really. This would only be valid if you were making the case that one race was being favored in athletic tutoring over another race or some similar argument.

The success of a team's academics should reflect just two things:

1. The academic rating of the school

2. How well the athletes perform in terms of graduation rate and potentially GPA.

Reetz13
Reetz13

What a ridiculous methodology.  Of course the football graduation rate is lower at good academic schools; football players have much lower admissions standards.  The only places where the football graduation rate is higher are glorified community colleges like Boise State and Northern Illinois where the student body as a whole isn't very smart, so the extra help on keeping football players eligible makes all the difference.

paikinator
paikinator

@Reetz13  

 BSU is a Community college. You are partly right.Basicallyup until rather recently and while I was going there BSU was requiredto accept basically everyone who applied. You see they have a bit of adifferent charter than most 4 year research institutions. They arepioneers in distance learning to the remote areas of Idaho, they offermany associates degrees, night courses, certification programs. Inshort, they execute the charter placed before them quite well. 

BSU will never be a Stanford or Cal. But don't let that fool you. Myprofessors were from Stanford, Cornell, Princeton and I did better than90% of the nation on my MCATS. The level of education I received was topnotch in every way and put me ahead of fellow students in my futureschools at Tulane and Penn State.

However, your qualification of the student body as a whole as not very smart is not reflective of thoseI knew at the school and is a bit of a generalization without reasonable foundation.

Boise State graduates 81%+ of its footballplayers which is better than the national average of somewhere around70%. That is to be commended. Part of the reason the graduation rate ishigher is that the type of players who come to BSU also want to get adegree since it is unlikely they are going on to play professionallyafter college. The coaching staff is also to be commended foremphasizing football players studying and getting their degrees.

paikinator
paikinator

Sorry for the run together sentences and strange formatting. My message hung and when I tried to re-post it mashed everything together in odd ways.???? Strange what happens with browsers sometimes.

paikinator
paikinator like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Reetz13 

I wouldn't say at Michigan the standard to graduate is higher. I worked at Michigan and lived in Ann Arbor for many years. I would say that in some areas at Michigan the standards are higher, but for many of the graduates, the requirements to graduate are no more difficult than what I found at Boise State. Often times "the work" done by the football players is an absolute joke. My wife lived in the football dorm and tutored FB players at Michigan. Often they weren't very bright and the classes they had to take were kind of special classes.... lots of FB players took... wink wink.

So rigor of a University can vary to quite a degree especially when football players are in the mix. At Tulane I found the rigor of my coursework was nowhere near the effort I needed to achieve the same marks at Boise State. I would have expected a higher level of courses and more intellectual rigor, but I didn't find it.

My point is that in general, excellence varies quite a bit in very large institutions. One persons education can be the very best in the world, and in the same institution, somebody else may get a degree while being completely incompetent. I knew a girl who graduated from a powerhouse school with a degree in computer engineering who couldn't even do the basics in writing a web page from scratch and didn't seem to be able to figure out what my 10 year old nephew can do in his sleep.

Generally, in football programs, graduation is determined by a couple of things. The  competence of the student athlete and the competence of the athletic department in properly prioritizing graduation. Some schools tend to attract athletes who want to graduate and work hard. Some schools attracts students who don't know what a book is.

Boise State is a school that places a high value on graduating its student athletes. Most go on to real life and aren't deluded by the idea they will become an NFL star.

Boise State attracts some pretty bright football athletes "Titus Young" being a notable exception as of now. But in general I was studying along side players from the football team in my immunology, biochem, histology classes.

No matter what school you go to these are not simple classes and yet I knew plenty of players taking all range of coursework from all areas of the school. Not just basket weaving and home econ.

Is BSU a top flight university? Nope, but you can get a top flight education that can match other schools in some areas and there are a few areas I can think of where you can get the type of education you won't easily find in other schools.

Reetz13
Reetz13

A good reply, awesome.  Education is mostly what you want to get out of it and you can get perfect MCATs coming from anywhere if you put in the effort.  However, testing and reading requirements are ABSOLUTELY different depending on where you go, which means the minimum standard to graduate is much harder to achieve.  That's the biggest reason why Boise graduates more than, say, Michigan, without even getting to Stanford which has set a much higher bar for its undergraduates than Michigan.  The exceptions to this rule should be commended, so good job Northwestern.

ChicagoMan
ChicagoMan like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Reetz13 you are a moron.

Northern Illinois University is a fully accredited university--the 2nd largest in the state of Illinois with some of the top programs in the country in Accounting, Nursing, Teaching, Meteorology, Geology, etc.Unlike most Big Ten schools, NIU does NOT have relaxed standards for admissions or qualification for athletes (or scandals involving bribes, payoffs and failure to report major criminal behavior in order to protect the athletic program).Comparing Northern Illinois University to a community college is like comparing your intelligence to that of a banana slug. Clearly the Banana slug has the superior intellect.

Reetz13
Reetz13

"Unlike most Big Ten schools, NIU does NOT have relaxed standards for admissions or qualification for athletes" It... doesn't... have to.  Much like at Boise, no one ever gets denied admission unless they are clearly unfit for college.  25% of the freshman class at NIU has worse than a 2.85 GPA or a 20 ACT, which means as many as half the student body might be under one of those.

The point being NIU accepts a lot of poor applicants and they fail out or leave, but student athletes (particularly football players) have extra resources and a whole department making certain that they stay eligible.

NikkiGrizib
NikkiGrizib

@ChicagoMan @Reetz13 ....Engineering and a law school!

I was going to comment on Reetz's appalling comment on my own but ChicagoMan hit all the necessary points.

nysportz
nysportz

@Reetz13 Glorified community colleges like Boise State, Northern Illinois... and Northwestern?

jimbo
jimbo

@nysportz   Know what you are talking about before you comment. You must not of ever heard of Northwestern to make such a stupid comment. And NIU is a great academic school. One of the Top Nursing, special education, and their Business school is ranked very high as well.

nysportz
nysportz

@jimbo Northwestern and NIU are both fine schools, one of which I attended. I guess my point was lost there.

There's no perfect system for scoring the academics of football programs. GSR and APR each have their flaws, as does this method. I think this system is interesting in that it gives schools credit for beating the student body average. Posting a 75% football team graduation average may seem impressive, but it's less so for a school with a 90% overall grad rate than it is for a school with a 50% rate. That said, this methodology does make it easier for schools with lower overall graduation rates to earn a high score. Just one more piece of data, that's all this is.

mc33345
mc33345

@nysportz @Reetz13 Northwestern University is the 12th highest ranked undergraduate school in the nation. It also has some of the most prestigious graduate schools in the country such as Kellog or Medill

Reetz13
Reetz13 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Yeah, Northwestern is an exception and should be commended.


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