Sharp improvement in Cal Bears’ graduation rates

New figures from the NCAA, college athletics’ governing body, show that flagging graduation rates for the Cal football program are making a comeback, with campus officials and faculty members attributing the improvement to an ongoing cultural shift that is meant to emphasize the “student” in “student-athlete.”

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Over the past several weeks, Berkeley Athletic Director Sandy Barbour has led a chorus of voices from across the campus community in describing the so-called Graduation Success Rate of Cal football players – as reported recently by the NCAA, whose data was based on freshmen admitted to Berkeley from 2003 to 2006 – as “unacceptable.”

In an Oct. 29 letter to Cal donors and boosters, Barbour took responsibility for the poor academic performance, and described a number of measures the campus initiated more than a year ago to counter what she termed “a disturbing trend, particularly within our football program.” These include holding monthly, comprehensive reviews of the team’s academic-improvement plan, helping players to better manage their course requirements and the 2012 expansion of the Athletic Study Center.

Cal Athletic Director Sandy Barbour

Cal Athletic Director Sandy Barbour (Steve McConnell photo)

The latest data provided by the NCAA for the Cal football program indicate the effort is bearing fruit, as seen in two key metrics that measure academic performance, the Graduation Success Rate (GSR) and the Academic Progress Rate (APR). The earlier, four-year figures showed that Cal’s football team had a GSR of 44 percent. Now, however, the new numbers from the NCAA show that the GSR for football players admitted to Berkeley in 2007 has risen to an estimated 65 percent, an increase of almost 50 percent.

The new, estimated APR, which, unlike the GSR, measures real-time academic performance and student-athlete retention, also shows marked improvement. While the football team scored a substandard 923 APR a year ago, the latest estimate for this year’s rate is 969 – a rate which, if sustained, would result in a graduation rate of about 85 percent. (The NCAA will release final, audited numbers in the spring. Cal athletics officials say they don’t anticipate changes to the current estimates.)

“The football team’s recent academic performance, as evidenced by the significant improvement in the NCAA metrics, is very encouraging, and shows that we’re on the right track in making sure all of our student-athletes get the benefits of a UC Berkeley education,” Barbour said. “But we’re still not satisfied and need to go further in order to sustain this progress and support continued academic achievement across our entire program. We want our student-athletes to understand that they’re part of a high-performance culture that includes academic as well as athletic excellence. And we intend to give them the support they need to succeed, both in the classroom and on the field.”

On Thursday, Barbour announced the formation of a task force of faculty, staff, students and alumni to “identify and examine the key factors” in student-athletes’ academic achievement. The group, to be chaired by anthropology professor Meg Conkey, will be asked to offer recommendations on such questions as campus policies and practices; the role of coaches, administrators and faculty; and issues related to academic expectations and the student-athlete experience on the Berkeley campus.

The task force, whose full roster is not yet confirmed, is expected to begin work in January, and to deliver a report by June 2014 to Barbour and physics professor Bob Jacobsen, executive associate dean in the College of Letters and Science and the campus’s faculty athletic representative.

In a new paper, “Student-Athlete Academic Performance at Berkeley: A Look at the Facts,” Jacobsen and fellow faculty member Richard Rhodes, an associate professor of linguistics, examine “preconceived notions” about the causes of poor graduation rates for some Cal teams – notably, the idea that Berkeley’s admissions standards for athletes are lower than those for the general student body – and call for an end to “a troubling disconnect” between student-athletes and the campus at large.

“Student-athletes are part of our campus community,” Jacobsen explained. “We saw a lot of incorrect information being spread around about how they’re admitted, their experience while here and their outcomes. We wanted to provide correct information in the hope that the campus conversation would turn in more productive and useful directions.”

Given the need to “change the culture,” the newly formed task force, write Jacobsen and Rhodes, is “the right thing to do.”

Meanwhile, the Cal athletics department has added a fifth full-time academic specialist for the football Bears, a sign of what Barbour says is a stepped-up commitment to expand on the progress demonstrated by the new NCAA figures.

“Berkeley has embarked on an institutional academic-improvement plan for football that has begun to show positive results,” said Derek Van Rheenen, director of Berkeley’s Athletic Study Center, which offers academic support and career counseling to student-athletes. Van Rheenen, who was the principal architect of the Academic Improvement Plan for the football program, said the campus still has “a lot of work ahead of us,” but expressed confidence that “we have the institutional will to be better.”

“These improvements,” he added, “confirm our commitment to comprehensive excellence in both academics and athletics.”