Academics: Mixed Bag For Dukes

By Joe Lemire
Updated: February 1, 2006

School exceeded national average, but lagged in men’s hoops.

VIRGINIA—James Madison University graduated more of its scholarship athletes than most schools nationwide, according to a new NCAA report, with one glaring exception.

The report, which covered four freshmen classes, shows that the Dukes’ graduation rates were comparable to peer state schools, higher than half of their fellow league members and, overall, 8 percentage points better than the rest of Division I.

The exception: men’s basketball, where only one in three players earned degrees within six years during the reporting period, which began with freshmen who enrolled in 1995.

JMU officials say the low graduation rate for basketball players was an aberration, pointing to more recent data that show a much higher rate.

As a whole, Madison appears to be happy with the report.

“We’re really pleased, although our ultimate goal is for the graduation rates to move higher,” JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne said. “If you look at it in the context of the support system we run for all our students, we are confident that those rates are going to continue to go up.”

The recent report was the first to use a new formula called the Graduation Success Rate. Previously, the NCAA employed only the federal government’s standard, which some people believed skewed the rates because academically eligible players who transferred to a new school were counted against their former school – even if they graduated from their new college.

Under the new formula, a player who transfers – and leaves his former institution in good academic standing – will not hurt a school’s graduation rate.

Overall, 84 percent of JMU’s athletes graduated, according to GSR standards. The national average for athletes among the 318 Division I schools was 76 percent.

Men’s Basketball Lagged

Even under the more lenient standard, however, the Dukes’ men’s basketball program was an academic casualty during the reporting period. Its GSR was less than half that of any of Madison’s other teams. The basketball team’s GSR of 33 percent was significantly lower than the Division I national average for men’s basketball (58), though it was 10 points higher than the team’s federal graduation rate (23 percent).

“Honestly, I think that was an aberration,” said Casey Carter, a JMU associate athletic director who oversees academics. “If you look at the years after that, they’re doing pretty well.”

Carter said that during the first two years of the study – the entering classes of 1995 and 1996 – several men’s basketball transfers partly explained the low number. According to Carter, neither Madison nor the players paid sufficient attention to ensuring their eligibility because the GSR standard hadn’t been invented yet. She said a limitation of the GSR report is that it tries to “retro-fit” data – in other words, it imposes a current standard on old figures.

In addition, she said, one basketball player graduated recently and another is currently enrolled at Madison, but both went beyond the six-year window.

Lefty Driesell was the Dukes’ basketball coach for the first two years included in the study; Sherman Dillard began as coach in the 1997-98 season and lasted through 2003-04, which was the final year of the report.

Dean Keener, in his second season as JMU’s basketball coach, expressed confidence in his program’s academic standing.

“I just know that things are in really good shape right now with Casey and her program,” Keener said. “People can use statistics kind of the way a drunk uses a lamppost – just for support. You can skew stats any way you want.”

Kyle Swanston, who plans to study finance, said he and all his fellow freshmen on the basketball team are required to do a minimum of 10 hours per week of study hall and that he found plenty of academic help during his first semester at Madison.

“It’s challenging because I came into college as a freshman not really knowing what to expect, but they help you through it,” Swanston, who grew up in Florida, said. “…Everyone supports you. The basketball coaches support you. They stay on you about your grades.”

The men’s basketball team had the largest gap between the GSR for white and black athletes of any team in JMU’s NCAA report – 100 percent of whites graduated, 25 percent of blacks graduated. On the football team, 76 percent of whites earned degrees and 57 percent of blacks did so.

Overall, the GSR for all white athletes was 90 percent and for all black athletes 59 percent at James Madison. The national GSR average for all Division I schools was 82 percent for white athletes and 59 percent for all black athletes. JMU’s four-class federal graduation rate for all students, athletes and non-athletes alike, was 81 percent for whites and 65 percent for all blacks.

Why the difference?

“I’m not really sure. I can’t speak to that specifically. We work diligently with every one of our student-athletes,” Bourne said. “…A lot of it starts with a student’s preparation before they get here, and once they are here, we try to do an in-depth assessment of where there might be weaknesses.”

JMU Comparable To U.Va., Tech

Compared to the state’s two major athletic programs, Madison’s 84 GSR is sandwiched between the University of Virginia (86 percent) and Virginia Tech (83 percent). By the four-class federal standard – using data from athletes who first enrolled between the fall of 1995 and the fall of 1998 – JMU graduated 74 percent, slightly below the average for all students at the school.

The GSR was not computed for non-athletes, but 79 percent of Madison students – combining athletes and non-athletes – graduated within six years during the study, according to the federal rate.

Radford led all Virginia schools and the nation as the only athletic program with a perfect 100 percent GSR.

William & Mary had the highest GSR of any Colonial Athletic Association school at 95 percent. Madison ranked fifth out of the 12 CAA schools, trailing W&M, Delaware (89 percent), Northeastern (88) and North Carolina-Wilmington (86). Georgia State was last in the conference with a GSR of 67 percent.

The Dukes’ other two high-profile teams fared reasonably well. The football team’s GSR of 68 percent was less than the JMU average, but it beat the Division I-AA football average (64). With a GSR of 88 percent, the women’s basketball players fared better than the average Madison athlete and the overall Division I women’s basketball average (81).

“We’re just excited that the young ladies who are in our program are doing well academically,” women’s basketball coach Kenny Brooks said, “and when they complete their eligibility, they’re graduating, and that’s all we can control.”

According to Carter, the new GSR standard is more equitable than past measurements, though there remains some difficulty in such a broad, national comparison.

“I think it is very difficult to measure academic success in terms of a uniform system that applies across the country to each school,” said Carter, who also has served as a peer reviewer for the NCAA’s certification process. “It’s so different – the mission statement, the size, the culture of the campus.”

Yet Another Rating

If things weren’t complicated enough with federal rates and GSR’s, a third formula also will be used by the NCAA to measure academics– and this one has teeth.

The NCAA announced in February 2005 that college athletic programs would be penalized if they don’t meet certain academic standards. Those decisions will be made based on an altogether different standard than the GSR called the Academic Progress Rate. The first APR data that will be used to levy penalties – including the loss of scholarships – will be released in late February or early March.

The APR provides a more current picture of a team’s academic performance.

“The APR is more of a real-time measure of what’s going on – as we say, the academic culture of a team right now with the coach who’s here right now, not six years ago,” Cayce Crenshaw, Carter’s assistant in Student Athlete Services, said. “With the graduation rates, these are kids [starting] here in ’95 to ’98 and coaches here from ’95 to ’98.”

Unlike the other formulas, the APR stresses more than simply graduation rates. It examines a school’s ability to maintain the eligibility of its athletes and to retain them.

Crenshaw said Madison’s preliminary two-year APR numbers indicate that each of its teams meet the minimum, including the men’s basketball team, whose one-year score for 2003-04 was a 977 – well above the 925 required to stay in good standing (with 1,000 being a perfect score). A 925 is roughly equivalent to a 50 percent graduation rate. The mark of 977 ranked nationally in the 70th to 80th percentile.

“It’s a team effort,” Bourne said. “It’s the belief from the student-athletes that they can achieve. It’s the coaches who believe in the academic mission, and it’s the support staff who work to fill in the gaps.”