Kelly Hunter – two-time National Champion, All-American setter, PrepVolleyball.com National Player of the Year in 2017 – started a typical day as an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln during the season at 7:30 a.m. with a workout.
Then classes. Next, lunch.
If there was time before practice, she’d try and take a quick nap.
Because she was a setter, Hunter started practice earlier than her teammates to get more reps. She’d get to the Devaney Center near 1:30 p.m. and at times didn’t leave until 6:30 or 7 later that evening.
After she showered, she’d grab a bite to eat at the training table before going to study hall for about two hours, sometimes longer. When she was done, Hunter would go to bed and prepare to do it all over again the next day.
“Student athletes are obviously very busy, so you kind of learn how to manage your time because you’re forced to,” Hunter said.
During one of the most successful runs of any program in volleyball history, Hunter managed to graduate in four years. She earned Academic All-Big Ten honors four times. In her final season of eligibility, she was in graduate school working toward a Master of Business Administration.
The volleyball team as a whole graduates 100 percent of their players.
And they’re not an outlier.
Even with the added responsibility of athletics, female student athletes throughout the country are having more success than male student athletes and non-student athletes when it comes to graduating.
Since the 1980s, women have graduated college at a higher rate than men. But since the NCAA started tracking the rates of its athletes in the mid-1990s, data shows that as an overall group, Division I female athletes far exceed male athletes academically, and even exceed the female student body as a whole.
NCAA data from the most recent group studied – students who started in 2010 and are tracked over a six-year period – shows female student athletes had a reported graduation rate of 75 percent, 14 percentage points greater than the male student athlete rate.
The graduation rate of the entire female student body for that same cohort was 68 percent.
Since 1995, the gap between male and female athlete graduation rates has remained largely unchanged when using federal statistics. In that time, the NCAA created its own metric – called the Graduation Success Rate – to do their own measurement of academics in college sports.
Under that measure, the gap is still wide – women in college sports graduated at a rate 11 percentage points higher than men – but that gap is narrowing.
There are a number of theories for why the female student athletes outpace their counterparts. They include women being better prepared for college than men, or that men have far more opportunities to play professional sports, and therefore have less incentive to complete college. The proof, experts say, is that many of the nation’s largest institutions – those in the so named Power 5 conferences – have trends that differ from other schools in college athletics’ top division.
Regardless, experts aren’t surprised by the success female student athletes have on and off the field.
Lydia Bell, Associate Director of Research for Academic Performance at the NCAA, believes one factor is the experience these student athletes had in high school, juggling their athletic and academic responsibilities.
“It doesn’t surprise me that when they get to college they, in many cases, may have an advantage over other students in being able to get things done and be able to stay on top of their academics,” Bell said.
How Are the Rates Calculated?
There are two different formulas used to calculate graduation rates of Division I students: the Federal Graduation Rate and the NCAA’s own formula called Graduation Success Rate, which was developed in what the NCAA says is an attempt to calculate a more accurate rate for its student athletes.
The federal rate is produced by the U.S. Department of Education and measures the percent of first-time full-time freshman that graduate within six years of entering their original four-year institution.
The success rate is similar, tracking only student athletes that receive athletic scholarships, but also including transfers in and out of an institution. With the NCAA’s rate, if a student athlete departs a school as a transfer in good academic standing, they are moved from that school’s cohort to the others. If the student athlete leaves in poor academic standing, they are counted as a non-graduate. The federal rate counts all transfers as non-graduates, leading to lower rates.
While there are pros and cons for both rates, comparisons between the two show the NCAA rate tends to be about 20 percentage points higher, however the two rates cannot be compared directly because each is calculated differently. This means the only way to compare student athlete rates to student body rates is using the federal rate.
Overall Division I Trends
When putting the yearly female student athlete rates next to their counterparts, it’s easy to see just how far above the rest of the field they have been for the past decade and a half.
In each of the 16 reporting years since 2002, female student athletes have had an overall federal graduation rate at least 13 percentage points higher than the male student athletes. The gap has held steady at 14 each of the past three years.
The same can be said about the graduation rate gap between female athletes and the female student body. Although not as wide, female student athletes have outpaced the rate of the entire female student body by at least 6 percentage points since the 2002 reporting year.
Using the NCAA’s rates, comparisons between male and female student athletes again show there is a gap, but it is not as wide as the federal rate, and it is decreasing. The gap in graduation rates hit its lowest margin in the 2017 reporting year at 11 percentage points, with the female rate at 93 percent and the male rate at 82. The gap was 17 in the 2007 reporting year.
Another way that shows the extent of female athletes graduating at higher rates than male athletes is by comparing the overall rates of individual sports.
Although it is possible the number of participants and athletic scholarships given to each sport may skew the results, the comparison of the NCAA’s rate shows that of the 35 sponsored sports, 15 of the 20 sports with the highest rates were women’s sports. Thirteen of the lowest 15 were men’s sports.
Differences in federal rate comparisons are not as drastic, but still follow a similar pattern. Thirteen of the 20 sports with the highest rates were women’s sports, while 11 of the lowest 15 were men’s sports.
When looking at the differences in rates at individual institutions, some schools have female student athletes that are graduating at rates that are at times double, or triple, that of the male student athlete and female student body.
Institutions that do not provide athletic scholarships, such as those in the Ivy League and the service academies, are not included in the data table.
Of the 335 Division I institutions with reported rates for both student athletes and the student body, 281 – nearly 84 percent – had higher female student athlete federal rates than male student athletes. That percent increases to nearly 87 percent when looking at the NCAA’s success rate.
When comparing the female rates of student athletes and the student body, 68 percent of the institutions had differences that favored the female student athletes.
The trend of remarkable success for female student athletes is consistent through a majority of Division I institutions.
Bell, who assists in all aspects of development and analysis of research on current and former student-athlete academic performance for the NCAA, said many of the women who play sports at the Division I level had higher GPAs and standardized test scores in high school.
Those skills in the classroom have translated to their successful pursuit of a secondary education.
“They’ve had a lot of practice juggling that,” Bell said. “When we think about the typical undergraduate, many students are coming into college, they suddenly have all this time on their hands. Maybe they haven’t developed a lot of those study strategies.”
These reasons are why Bell isn’t surprised that a highly competitive top-notch athlete is able to balance academic and athletic obligations.
Hunter, the former Nebraska volleyball player, said having a strict schedule and constantly being busy forces her to stay on top of her schoolwork.
“If you’re not using that one time to study, obviously you’re not going to get you’re homework done,” Hunter said. “You’re not going to get good grades. In some ways, I think being so busy in high school and having a more full day kind of helps you realize that ‘Hey, I need to study during this time.’”
Effects of Transfers and Professional Opportunities
Other experts point out factors that occur outside of the classroom, such as the opportunity for a student athlete to leave college prior to completion and play professionally, or the transfer climate that’s become more and more accessible. Although transferring doesn’t necessarily affect the success rate if the student is in good academic standing, it does have an effect on the federal rate.
Dr. Joe Scogin, Senior Associate Athletics Director and Assistant Provost at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said when it comes to transfers, he believes it’s only begun to show the effects it can have on graduation rates.
Scogin said in the past there have been more transfers among male student athletes than female student athletes. It was more accessible for the men to look for other opportunities at a different school if they weren’t getting playing time or if there was a coaching change.
Now, he said he’s seen the number of female student athlete transfers rise in recent years as it’s become more accessible for them. At the same time, he’s seen the rate of transfers for male student athletes begin to decrease as it’s become harder for them to be granted a release, leading to the potential for higher federal graduation rates.
The important thing to note is the effects of this increase in transfers of female student athlete isn’t visible yet in the graduation rates, because the six-year windows for those most recent cohorts hasn’t ended and the data has not been submitted to the federal government for tracking.
When they are submitted, Scogin predicts the trends will change.
“If I were to guess, you’re going to see the female numbers of student athletes going down because the transferring has been more readily acceptable for female student athletes than maybe it had been for male student athletes over the years,” Scogin said.
As for the opportunity for student athletes to leave early and go pro, Scogin said the sports culture of America restricts the potential for female student athletes to do so.
For decades, the National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball, plus the multiple developmental levels below those, have given talented male athletes the opportunity to get paid for their talents.
“There’s no like opportunity for female sports to do that, and so the resulting impact is on graduation rates,” Scogin said.
Not every male student athlete leaves early, and not every female student athlete stays and completes their education in six years, but the influence to get paid for talent has affected male graduation rates, according to Scogin.
Scogin, who also is a member of the NCAA’s Committee of Academics, said these male student athletes who come back to finish their education are graduating, but they don’t count toward the institution’s NCAA or federal cohort.
Female student athletes do have the opportunity to play professionally. There’s the Women’s National Basketball Association, National Pro Fastpitch (softball), National Women’s Soccer League and several other professional leagues, both in the United States and in other countries.
However, the key difference is none of these professional leagues amount to the potential payday or number of chances male student athletes have.
“That’s my opinion on why the numbers are so different,” Scogin said about the comparison of male and female student athlete rates. “It’s a different sport culture.”
For volleyball specifically, most collegiate standouts move on to play in one of the many professional European leagues. Some of the seniors, those who have already graduated, will even join a professional club after the collegiate season concludes in December. They play the second half of the professional season with their new team.
This was an option for Hunter following the Huskers championship run in December 2017, but because she was already committed to earning her MBA, she put her professional volleyball career on hold.
Hunter said with women’s volleyball, a player gets better as they age, so many of the professionals are 30 years or older.
“It’s not really a huge time crunch for you to go play overseas,” Hunter said.
With male sports, especially basketball and baseball, a large number of athletes enter the draft after their freshman year of college, or sometimes right after they graduate high school.
The student athletes that enter college and leave before completion have a direct impact on the graduation rates.
This opportunity to leave school early and go pro logically points to why the graduation rate trends of Power 5 conferences are different compared to the rest of the Division I.
When looking at the overall average federal rate of the Power 5 conferences – the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern and Pac-12 – it is higher than that of the overall Division I average across all of the categories, from female student athletes to the male student body.
It is important to note this average is different than the actual rate because it is not weighted based on the number of student athletes or overall students at an institution. It is simply an average of the Power 5 institution rates.
Still, federal rate comparisons of the student body show the Power 5 average is about 15 percentage points higher than the average of the entire Division I for both men and women.
This means, on average, a Power 5 student graduates at a rate higher than a general Division I student.
But for student athletes, the gap is much smaller, with the Power 5 average just two percentage points higher than the entire Division I average for both men and women.
Within the Power 5, a comparison between the female student athlete average and the female student body average shows the student body’s is slightly higher. This is opposite of the entire Division I, where female athletes outpace the female student body by 9 percentage points when looking at averages specifically.
A logical explanation is that a large majority of the student athletes, regardless of gender, that go on to play professionally are from these Power 5 institutions, which house many of the top athletic teams and individuals in the country.
Over two-thirds, and sometimes three-fourths, of the athletes selected in the major sport drafts in recent years came from Power 5 institutions.
That ratio was nearly 70 percent in the NFL Draft for players selected in the last eight years. In the NBA Draft, it was just under 60 percent, with many of the other 40 percent coming from foreign countries.
For professional women’s leagues, the percent of players drafted from Power 5 schools reached well above the rates for men’s leagues. In the National Women’s Soccer League, 76 percent of the athletes drafted in the last five years came from Power 5 schools. For the National Pro Fastpitch (softball) that number reached 82 percent.
Although it is difficult to determine the exact rate of which these student athletes actually complete college before playing professionally, it is a factor for why the female student athletes at Power 5 schools are graduating at slightly lower rates than their female student body counterparts, unlike the rest of the Division I.
Power 5 Conference Trends
When grouping institutions by their school-affiliated conference and averaging the various graduation rates, female athletes had or tied for the highest numbers in 26 of the 31 conferences.
The five conferences where female student athletes didn’t have the highest rates were the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten, Southeastern and West Coast. Four of those conferences are in the Power 5 group.
In the Pac-12, the other conference in the Power 5, both female student athletes and female student body had an average institution federal rate of 78.
The graduation rate gender gap between female and male student athletes of individual Power 5 institutions aren’t much different than the rest of the Division I, in fact it’s a bit higher for both the federal and NCAA rates.
The biggest difference is the comparison of the female student athletes and the female student body.
Of the 65 Power 5 intuitions, a little more than a third — 22 to be exact — had a comparison favoring the female student athletes.
This hasn’t always been the case, though.
Prior to the 2013 reporting year, the Power 5 female student body averaged a higher federal rate than the female student athlete rate just twice since the reporting started in 2002.
In the last four reporting years alone, the average Power 5 female student body rate has been higher than the average female student athlete rate.
Again, it’s not that the average Power 5 female student athlete rate is lower than those of the entire Division I, it’s that the average female student body rates at Power 5 institutions are simply much higher than the overall Division I rate.
Still, some institutions in the Power 5 group have female student athletes that are continuing to go against the recent trends and are still outpacing their counterparts.
Forming a Culture of Success
At the nation’s leading institution in total Academic All-American’s, both sport and academics are equally important.
Since the early 1950s, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has 330 CoSIDA Academic All-Americans, 73 more than second place Notre Dame.
Portraits of these academically successful athletes are put on a wall inside Memorial Stadium, letting incoming freshman athletes know they are indeed student athletes, not just athletes.
“It’s subconsciously sending a message here about academics,” said Nebraska volleyball Coach John Cook.
This academic excellence has translated to above average graduation rates for both student athletes and the student body at UNL.
But in Lincoln the female student athletes, as a group, are at the top of the podium when it comes to completing their education.
UNL’s female student athlete rate was greater than that of its female student body rate in each of the last five reporting years for the federal rate. In the most recent report, the female student athletes had a federal rate of 80 percent, while the female student body’s was an impressive 71.
Still, that nine-percentage point difference between the two rates was the fourth highest among the 65 Power 5 institutions in the 2010 cohort, behind the University of Louisville, Kansas State University and the University of Utah.
Dennis Leblanc, Executive Associate Athletic Director for Academics at UNL, said the university puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of academics and reaching the ultimate goal of graduation.
“I think it’s more of just the culture,” Leblanc said about the high graduation rates of UNL’s student athletes. “It’s not just saying that academics is important in our athletic department, but actually living that out.”
A prime example of this culture is Cook’s volleyball program, which has posted a perfect 100 percent success rate in each of the 13 years it’s been recorded, according to data gathered by the NCAA.
As for the team’s federal rate, it was above or equal to the university’s overall female student athlete rate in nine of the 13 years individual team rates were reported.
Cook said even though a lot of his players do go on to play professionally, they know getting a degree is why they’re in school.
“It’s not something that we kind of forget about ‘cause we’re athletes,” Hunter said. “We really are student athletes first.”