What about early departures for the NFL? They reduce graduation rates a little, but the effect is small: employing the Graduation Success Rate rather than the Federal Graduation Rate more than compensates for early departures. The most recent year for which graduation statistics have been released had 53 early entrants, about half of 1 percent of upperclassman scholarship players. As ESPN Grade shows, some football-factory programs maintain high graduation standards in spite of early departures, while others have low standards in spite of no early departures.
What about the Academic Progress Rate the NCAA also computes? This metric only matters to a college's institutional compliance with NCAA rules; the APR has no bearing on the real world and tells next to nothing about education. Nobody receives an APR compliance certification on commencement day. At job interviews, no employers ask whether you attended an APR-compliant institution. Employers ask: Did you graduate from college?
What about allegations of "academic misconduct" at Notre Dame, the football factory at the top for graduation rate? This may be a serious matter, and if so, the important thing is the players involved were caught. Unless they answer the accusations and fix their transcripts, they won't graduate. Many college students who are not athletes try various forms of cheating, and if caught do not receive degrees. No system is perfect, but generally, college students who don't attend class or who hand in work copied from the Internet don't get diplomas and do not show up in graduation statistics.
Isn't it possible that someone can graduate from college without really getting an education, after taking easy courses? Yes, and this is a problem in collegiate athletics. But it's a problem in all of higher education; many non-athletes take easy courses, skip class and graduate without meaningful education, too. All that anyone can be sure of about a college student is whether that person walked to "Pomp and Circumstance" holding a diploma, and that's what ESPN Grade either rewards or penalizes.
Most people agree there is not enough emphasis on academics in big-college football. To change this, we must first change the incentives. Today the incentives are exclusively for victory. Coaches and athletic directors are extensively rewarded, with prestige and money, if their teams win. If players graduate, there is no reward, nor any downside if players are used up and thrown away without a diploma. And the bachelor's degree -- which adds $1 million to lifetime earnings -- is worth more economically than the average player could receive in any college pay-for-play scheme.
By ranking teams both on gridiron and graduation, ESPN Grade creates a new, simple way to assess the student-athlete overlap. Alumni and boosters of universities that do well in ESPN Grade should feel proud. Alumni and boosters of universities that do poorly in ESPN Grade should feel embarrassed. And that starts a conversation all of collegiate athletics needs to have.
In other news, the resumption of the football artificial universe approaches. Here's an AFC preview:
Baltimore: The Ravens are streaky. During their 2012 Super Bowl victory run, Baltimore went 1-4 down the stretch to conclude the regular season, then 4-0 in the playoffs. Last season, the Ravens posted a three-game losing streak and a four-game winning streak.