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The NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate: How Successful Is It?


The Graduation Success Rate (GSR) plays a critical role supporting the NCAA’s Collegiate Model of amateur college athletics. The NCAA created the GSR to correct a statistical bias in the legally mandated Federal Graduation Rate (FGR) that causes it to underestimate rates. But the GSR’s attempted correction causes it to overestimate rates. This paper reports the first estimate of the size of this statistical bias. The focus is on the big revenue sport of men’s basketball in the so-called Power Conferences. The small size of basketball squads allows a reasonably accurate estimate of GSR cohort sizes based on publically available data. This in turn enables the calculation of a “corrected” GSR. The results indicate that the GSR exaggeration is large, perhaps as much as 20 percentage points. This raises fundamental questions about the success of the GSR as a useful graduation rate metric.

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  1. As quoted in Brutlag Hosick (2018). The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is the main governing body of American college sports.

  2. See above quote by NCAA President Mark Emmert. Collegiate conferences and individual universities frequently site their GSR scores as evidence of athlete academic success. Examples include the Atlantic Coast Conference (2019) and the University of Michigan (2019). In addition, academic research on college athlete graduation success often relies on the GSR; for example, see Lapchick (2019).

  3. The NCAA has over 1100 member colleges and universities organized into three Divisions by level of competition. The highest level is Division I with about 350 schools. The Power Conferences include the elite schools within Division I, currently numbering 75.

  4. Any such comparison may still be imperfect, however, to the extent that the general student body contains students that switch to part-time status after their initial full-time enrollment (Eckard 2010). Athletes are required to be full-time students throughout their careers.

  5. NCAA regulations stipulate four years of college athletic eligibility, to be used within five years.

  6. For a more detailed presentation of the NCAA’s position, see “Why the GSR is a Better Methodology” at

  7. For sophomores, the standard is a 1.8 GPA, for juniors a 1.9 GPA, and for seniors a 2.0 GPA (NCAA 2019b).

  8. FGRs and GSRs for sample schools can be found through the NCAA’s Division I Graduation Success Rate search engine at

  9. In comparison, the mean male student body FGR was 73.8 for the sample schools.

  10. The relevant scholarship limit for football is 85 per year, as compared to only 13 for basketball.

  11. Note that these calculations cannot be made for the NCAA’s greater-than-20 range that lacks an upper bound.

  12. In fact, as noted by the NCAA, transfers usually underperform other students at their new school (Petr and Paskus, 2009; Paskus, 2012). Also, an NCAA study found that Division I men’s basketball players (in general) who transfer “register lower … graduation rates at their new schools than seen among non-transfers” (NCAA Research 2014). This would reduce the GSR-C estimates below.

  13. The NCAA tracks academic outcomes for both Divisions, as both grant scholarships.

  14. This NCAA cohort calculation excludes the Non-Scholarship Athletes in Table 1, as they are a trivial number of Power Conference basketball players.

  15. See chart titled “Transfer Destination by Division” in NCAA Research (2018, unpaginated).

  16. The 75 Power Conference schools comprise about 21% of Division I membership.


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Correspondence to E. Woodrow Eckard.

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The sample conferences and member schools are listed below:

  • Atlantic Coast: Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest (ACC member Notre Dame is an independent in football)

  • Big 12: Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Christian, Texas Tech, West Virginia

  • Big East: Butler, Creighton, DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova, Xavier

  • Big Ten: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Rutgers, Wisconsin

  • Pacific-12: Arizona, Arizona State, California, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Southern California, Stanford, UCLA, Utah, Washington, Washington State

  • Southeastern: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana State, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt

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Eckard, E.W. The NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate: How Successful Is It?. Res High Educ 61, 780–793 (2020).

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  • NCAA
  • Athlete graduation rate
  • College basketball
  • Statistical bias