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New NCAA Diploma Dashboards offer major insight

Databases let users compare fields of study for graduating college athletes and student body

Updated Aug. 20, 2018.

Student-athlete graduation rates have been on a steady climb for years. But what exactly are they studying?

Today, the NCAA is launching new tools to compare undergraduate degrees earned by college athletes with those conferred on the general student body. The Division I Diploma Dashboard and Division II Diploma Dashboard also allow users to dissect data to compare contingents of student-athletes based on year of graduation, gender, race and, in some cases, sport.

“We are proud to be able to provide this resource to our member schools as well as to the general public,” said Tom Paskus, principal research scientist for the NCAA. “This tool provides a new level of transparency to help others get a glimpse at the courses of study student-athletes choose.”

The databases include undergraduate degrees conferred to student-athletes in Divisions I and II. Division III data are not available because colleges and universities in Division III are not required to report academic data to the NCAA.

The Diploma Dashboards will be updated each time a new academic year’s information on degrees awarded is available from both NCAA and U.S. Department of Education sources. The data include student-athletes who compete in all sports, but information on graduates from a particular sport is available for just four: baseball, football, and men’s and women’s basketball. Paskus said he hopes sport-by-sport breakdowns will be available for more sports in future iterations of the databases.

Carolyn Callahan, a professor of education at Virginia who serves on the Division I Committee on Academics and was until recently the university’s faculty athletics representative, said she hopes Division I schools use this data to compare the degrees their student-athletes receive with those of the student body. The public Diploma Dashboards do not allow users to break down information by school, but colleges and universities soon will be able to look at their individual data through the NCAA Institutional Performance Program portal.

By regularly examining its own data on the degrees student-athletes earn, Virginia has uncovered such information as realizing no student-athlete could choose one particular major because a required course perennially conflicted with a common athletic practice time, Callahan said. With that information, the athletics department could open a conversation with the academic department that offered the major.

“These are the kind of things every institution should look at,” Callahan said. “Sometimes it will be surprising, and sometimes it can be reassuring.”

Paul Leidig, chair of the Division II Academic Requirements Committee and a professor in the School of Computing and Information Systems at Grand Valley State, said the data validate the committee’s work in increasing academic standards.

“The transparency made possible with access to these data engines better equips Association members to make the best decisions for the academic success of our student-athletes,” Leidig said.

NCAA research advises users to keep in mind that the demographics of the student-athlete population are different from those of the general student body. For example, the student-athlete population has a higher proportion of men and people of color than the general student body. As a result, when evaluating the data, NCAA research recommends disaggregating data by gender and race. (For example, comparing black men in the general student body to black male student-athletes).

As the databases demonstrate, some areas of study are more popular among student-athletes than the general student body. Many factors can lead to those decisions, Paskus said.

“As with the general student population, student-athletes have many considerations when they choose what degree to pursue,” Paskus said. “Those can include their interests, their family’s desires, whether they are academically prepared to take on requirements of a certain major program, whether certain classes or labs conflict with practice times, and the advice they receive from others on campus.”

A few key findings from the report

Female student-athletes are just as likely to major in STEM fields as their nonathlete peers.

In Division I, the percentage of female student-athletes pursuing a degree in a science, technology, engineering or math major is equal to women in the general student body. In Division II, female student-athletes are more likely than women in the general student body to pursue a STEM degree. In Division I, 15 percent of female students as well as 15 percent of female student-athletes are seeking those degrees. In Division II, 17 percent of female student-athletes and 11 percent of women in the general student body are pursuing STEM degrees. Within those numbers, 18 percent of black female student-athletes in Division II are pursuing degrees in the field, compared with 8 percent of black women in the general student body.

Rising academic standards have had little impact on student-athlete degree choices.

While NCAA academic committees — the Division I Committee on Academics and the Division II Academic Requirements Committee — have continued to put in place higher standards for student-athletes to show they are making academic progress toward their degrees, those decisions appear to have had little or no impact on the areas of study student-athletes choose to pursue. Over the past 10 years, the degrees awarded to student-athletes have followed similar trends to those seen in the general student body.

Both Callahan and Leidig said they are pleased to see higher academic standards for college athletes generally have not led the student-athlete population to pursue simpler studies.

“People always make the assumption that any changing of the rules is going to have a negative impact,” Callahan said. “I think students are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for. They adjust their behaviors, but in this case they didn’t adjust their behaviors by pursuing an easier major.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, student-athletes like sports.

College athletes are more than twice as likely to graduate with a degree related to athletics or fitness. In 2015-16, 7 percent of the degrees conferred to student-athletes in Division I were in fields such as kinesiology or fitness studies, compared with 3 percent of the general student body. In the same year in Division II, 10 percent of degrees conferred to student-athletes were in these fields, compared with 4 percent of the general student body.