NCAA Division-I Student-Athletes are Graduating at a Record Rate. Here’s why.

By Jeremiah Paprocki and Joseline Salmeron

As of April 26, 2021, 117 National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Division I Men’s Basketball student-athletes have already declared for the NBA Draft this summer. Many still have yet to declare, but of that group, only 38 of them are seniors. That means the other 79 of the eligible draftees, if drafted, will play professional basketball before graduating college with any degree.

The two most popular pro-sport drafts are the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Football League (NFL). To qualify for the NBA draft, the athlete must be at least 19 years old and one year removed from their high school graduation. The NFL draft requires athletes to be at least three years removed from high school, declaring for the draft after completing their junior year of college.

This year’s NBA Draft will be on July 29 and there will be only 60 picks available for the draft and only 60 eligible student-athletes will successfully transition from college student-athletes to professional basketball players. For the NFL Draft, only 254 eligible football players will be drafted to play professional football.

With the number of student-athletes available for any given draft for their respective sport, the chances of going pro are nearly impossible. Many people refer to it as the “one percent.” We spoke to an athlete who signed a contract with a professional team before graduating college, all while going undrafted.

Perspective of a Student-Athlete Turned Pro-Basketball Player

Dikembe Dixson, small forward for the Vardar of the Macedonian First League, managed to proceed to the pro-basketball stage despite not being drafted by an NBA team. Dixson attended the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) and played for the UIC Flames Men’s Basketball team from 2015 to 2018 and was named Horizon League’s Freshman of the Year in 2016.

“I don’t think anyone is really ready for that [pros] until they take that step” Dixson said.

It was Dixson’s decision at the end of his junior year at UIC in 2018 to leave college and pursue a professional basketball career. He declared for the NBA Draft but went undrafted. That wasn’t the end of Dixson’s opportunity at a pro-career. He signed a NBA summer league contract with the Miami Heat that summer and September signed his first professional contract with Hoops Club in Lebanon.

From then on he landed an NBA G-League contract with the Windy City Bulls and Capital City Go-Go in 2019. In December of 2019, he signed overseas to play for Basquete UniFacisa of the Novo Basquete Brasil. In January 2021, he signed with Vardar of the Macedonian First League.

In Dixson’s experience, he felt that without the preparation and training afforded to him through UIC, his career in the professional leagues would have proven more of a challenge.

Dixson said, “My mom and dad want me to graduate, still. I have like 16 hours left. So the deal was like whenever I got time to go back and take summer classes.”

In Dixson’s situation, he left UIC early to pursue a career he had dreamed his whole life of attaining. Although it was his dream to play in the professional leagues, Dixson spoke to personal struggles as well that helped him take that leap, describing how his experiences with poverty were also a factor in leaving education early. If Dixson returns to college, he said he would return to UIC.

Leaving college early can benefit someone’s life overall if they can obtain a professional career, but what happens to a university’s graduation rate if these student-athletes are not graduating? The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Director of Intercollegiate Athletics, Michael Lipitz, shares what that looks like for universities.

Universities’ Vision for Student-Athlete Success

Lipitz stressed that most universities, not only UIC, focus on three areas for student-athlete success. First and foremost, the coaching staff and college advisors prioritize a holistic approach to success — whether it be in the competitive arena, in the academic arena or the professional and social arena. UIC has 18 Division I teams and a little more than 300 student-athletes.

“First things first, you get a win in the conference, that gives you the chance to compete at a national level. And then from there, you see where you go” Lipitz said. “It’s actually that’s not something that I would never define competitiveness is … moving forward into the pros … you think of the numbers or the actual numbers are like this 1 percent of those that play high school sports, playing college 1 percent of that group goes pro. So it’s 1 percent of 1 percent. Of the kids that are playing in high school, it’s truly a needle in the haystack.”

To promote a culture of success, not only in the athletic arena but in the academic and career level, UIC aims on launching the Flames Leadership Institute in the fall of 2021. Lipitz described it as a, “targeted educational effort to really help student athletes essentially become the best version of themselves as they make it through four or five years.”

Student-Athlete Graduation Rates Measured

In 2004, the NCAA established a new metric for monitoring student-athlete success.

There are two rates that measure the graduation rate at universities, the graduation success rate (GSR) and the federal graduation rate (FGR). According to the NCAA, in 2002 the GSR was at 74 percent. In 2020, that number increased by 16 percent as the graduation rate for student-athletes across all of Division-1 sports was 90 percent.

The federal graduation rate measures all students, not just student-athletes. This provides a direct comparison between student-athletes and the campus as a whole. For the freshman cohort of 2013–2014, their graduation rates are based on the percentage of students that came in that year and graduated within six years. Student-athletes that are not on scholarship or are transfer students do not factor into the federal graduation rates.

Looking at the two most successful athletic programs for both basketball and football in 2021, the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Baylor Bears, we looked at their graduation rates for their most recent data from the 2013–14 freshman cohort.

For both Alabama and Baylor, more student-athletes are graduating than the national average, based on the FGR. For Baylor, student-athletes are graduating at a higher rate than the general student population. That’s not the case for Alabama as less student-athletes are graduating at 69 percent to the Alabama University average 71 percent.

To learn more about any specific university, search schools here.

UIC’s Academic Metrics Review from the graduating class of 2015 to 2020 shows the school’s GSR increased 7 percent during that time frame.

According to the NCAA FGR data, UIC student-athletes are out graduating the student body population. Based on the freshman cohort of 2013–2014, 74 percent of student-athletes graduated compared to the 61 percent of all students at UIC. Lipitz explains the NCAA’s way of tracking student-athlete and university graduation rates.

COVID-19 Changes the Game

As the coronavirus pandemic hit in early March of 2020, high school, college and pro sports were shut down by a virus that is spread through the most minimal physical contact. Many organizations were forced to reimagine the way sports were being played. Bubbles were created eventually and teams kept separated. Masks and social distancing became the norm on the sidelines as grandstands remained mostly empty.

For Michael Diggins, UIC Men’s Basketball forward, and thousands of student-athletes across the country, COVID-19 changed the way the game was played in the most literal sense.

Diggins will be wrapping up his senior year like no other in May 2021. He will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Diggins mentions how the new normal in basketball gave way to not only mental and emotional challenges, but also limited professional opportunities.

“Some teams had to sit out two or three games because of a COVID-19 outbreak in teams..that limited the number of scouting opportunities for them and limited their opportunities to being drafted to the pros.”

College Seniors Get A Second Chance

In October 2020, the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), extended the eligibility period for competitive basketball.

Diggins said this makes a huge difference not only for him but for many other college athletes. He says that this is a huge game changer for athletes that missed out on conferences by having been in teams that had COVID-19 outbreaks.

On April 21, 2021, Michael Diggins along with his teammate Jamie Ahale, decided to take advantage of the extended eligibility and have declared they will be back for the 2021–2022 season.

Former Loyola Ramblers Basketball Athlete Speaks on Culture of Student-Athlete Success

Former Loyola University basketball player Byron Burt, the current head coach for St. Laurence High School basketball team, recalled his experience as a college athlete under the leadership of Porter Moser.

Burt recalled being instilled with a sense of intense character development.

“For Coach Moser, his success, for him, it was to create a culture of winning… The whole purpose of his culture was to create better people, to create high character people and do it through enthusiasm,” Burt said.

Revisiting the question of why some student-athletes leave prior to graduation, Burt speaks of the incentive of earning more in the professional leagues than an athlete with a college degree who didn’t reach professional basketball. Burt also says that what is not talked about is the fact that a lot of these professional athletes go back to school to finish their degrees.

“A lot of these NBA players are going back to school, they’re finishing their school, they’re getting their degree and stuff like that. I just think it’s not talked about. I think the one and done is the thing that a lot of people focus on. But the kids who finished school and graduated, they are four years, obviously, they got the advantage of, you know, receiving that education, getting that degree right then and there.”

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