As the college football season nears its final showdown between Ohio State and LSU, the media-stoked frenzy over which teams were selected for the Bowl Championship Series has reached a fever pitch.
Penn State is in the Alamo Bowl, with less money and media attention. But if team academic performance were considered by the BCS, Penn State would have fared much better.
Over all, the academic performance of big-time college football is dismal. Only 56 percent of Division I-A football players graduate within six years of enrollment. Many who do receive a diploma are tracked into jock majors or pass through a substandard academic program.
Successful college football programs generate millions for their schools, so does it really matter if a relative handful of athletes leave college without an education?
We at Higher Ed Watch think it does, and that Penn State's team deserves credit for its work in the classroom. We created an "Academic BCS" formula that we hope will persuade some fans to rethink the one-track definition of success as a BCS berth.
Unlike the reams of information available on athletic performance, public data on the academic performance of student-athletes is scarce. There are only two: graduation rates and the NCAA's less-rigorous "academic progress rate" (APR) for each team. Half of each college's score comes from just having players in school. The other half comes from players completing 20 percent of their courses toward a degree each year. No minimum GPA required.
Under our Academic BCS formula, the NCAA's APR gets less weight than graduation rates. We give teams points based on (1) the gap in graduation rates between the football team and school overall, (2) the gap in graduation rates between black and white players in comparison to the school gap and (3) the team's APR in comparison to the median APR for all football teams. Our formula rewards schools that educate players as successfully as they do other students.
When our formula is applied to the teams ranked in the top 25 of the actual BCS poll, the results change dramatically. Boston College, Cincinnati and Connecticut look like champs compared to Ohio State and LSU, which rank at the bottom academically.
If Penn State is added to the mix, the Nittany Lions would rank second after Boston College and be competing for the Academic BCS National Championship.
Some teams from schools that might be expected to be top-ranked given their academic reputations (University of Virginia, for example, and Michigan, which recently dropped from the BCS poll) failed to earn top honors.
That is largely because these schools have significant gaps between the graduation rates of black and white players. Michigan graduated only 46 percent of black players who entered from 1997 to 2000, compared to 91 percent of its white players.
In contrast, Penn State graduated more black than white players during that period (74 percent for black players and 72 for white players), an accomplishment that doesn't attract the attention it deserves given the national disparities in black-white graduation rates overall.
Other teams from schools not generally considered academic powerhouses are doing a relatively good job educating their football players. At the University of Cincinnati, for example, 71 percent of players who entered the school from 1997 to 2000 left with a degree, compared to only 49 percent of all students at the school. Cincinnati's team had only a three-point black-white graduation gap, compared to the school's near 20-point gap.
Unless we adopt a purely mercenary approach to college sports, and perhaps pay players rather than perpetuate the charade of the student-athlete, we should recognize that the future of most college football players depends on getting a degree, not securing an NFL contract.
It's easy to ignore the academic question when cheering on a third-and-goal. But when the Nittany Lions take the field against Texas A&M later this month, take a step back and think about the broader picture. There are measures of success more important than a bowl victory.
A version of this article also appeared in the Dec. 9 edition of the Patriot-News.