The annual report released Monday by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport showed overall Graduation Success Rate improvement from 68 to 69 percent for football players at the bowl-bound schools.
Also, 97 percent of schools received a score higher than the target 925 (equal to an expected graduation rate of 50 percent) on the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate. Teams with a four-year APR of 925 or below face penalties including loss of scholarships. A new APR standard of 930 started to take effect for the 2012-13 academic year, though it won't be fully in place until 2014-15.
Primary study author Richard Lapchick said he thinks the recent awareness raised by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and NAACP president Ben Jealous has been instrumental in pushing schools to make the academic progress of their athletes a priority.
"I think the threat of the loss of scholarships has great meaning for coaches today," Lapchick said. "Even with football teams being so much bigger than in basketball, coaches want to protect those slots. They have become more engaged themselves and are getting the resources into academic affairs to get students who maybe weren't as engaged in high school to be more successful at their universities."
This year's numbers show a 20 percentage point gap between the graduation rate of white and African-American athletes, 82 percent to 62 percent. The numbers were 81 and 61 percent last year. But Lapchick notes it's encouraging that the rate for African-American athletes has risen consistently recently.
As recently as 2009, those rates were 58 percent for African-American and 77 percent for white athletes.
"There are a few perspectives on that gap," Lapchick said. "Graduation rates have significantly gone up annually a few points each year, and that's the good news. ... It's still a staggering difference, but it's also staggering that for African-American males, the graduation rates for those that are not athletes at those schools are far behind the ones that are."
A total of 66 out of 70 schools, or 94 percent, had at least a 50 percent GSR for their football teams. That's down from 97 percent in 2011, though Lapchick praised the high figure.
The GSR measures graduation rates of Division I schools after four years and includes students transferring into the institutions. The GSR also allows schools to subtract athletes who leave prior to graduation, as long as they would have been academically eligible to compete if they remained.
While the racial gap is a complex issue, Lapchick said, small things can make a difference.
"I think you continue to apply as many resources as you can, but (universities) also have to engage the public school systems where they are," he said. "Now you see student-athletes volunteering in their communities, which is something that hasn't always been the case.
"If those resources were directed at middle schools and elementary schools, then their leadership could help young people at those schools and inspire them to plot an academic course for their future so that they will have more opportunities."