For the most part I don't think we fans have our heads screwed on straight when it comes to athlete graduation rates. Fan thinking on this issue has been hijacked by the media coverage of the academic failures of high profile athletes. Because our parents (and educators the world over) have pounded it into our heads, we KNOW a four-year college graduate will make almost $1 million more than a high school graduate over a lifetime. College graduation is the PRIZE! So, when we fans see a media story about an athlete failing to graduate or, more importantly, remain eligible, it triggers some kind of visceral response and we start to look for reasons and a solution.
Because the media myopically focuses its exposés on high profile athletes the common denominator in these and other anecdotal circumstances is athletic participation. Ergo, college athletes are uninspired, if not outright misplaced, students, and athletic programs are uninterested in or even degrading to a college education and the solution is that they must be FORCED to mend their ways. However, research shows pretty clearly that participation in athletic programs (even bigtime programs), ON AVERAGE, has no detrimental impact on a student's graduation success. Rather it is the opposite; student athletes generally display the same highly focused discipline in their academics that they bring to their sport.
Because we never saw the academic failure of athletes in context, the fact they are a representative microcosm of their respective college student populations passes us by. The reality is that low college graduation rates are not limited to college athletes in any fashion. For example, the Boston Globe published a study in 2008 concerning completion rates for ALL Boston students who entered institutions of higher learning in what is often referred to as the “Center of American Higher Education.” They found: (1) “Students attending two-year community colleges had a 12 percent graduation rate;” (2) “Students attending four-year public state colleges had approximately a 33 percent graduation rate;” and, (3) “Students at four-year, private colleges managed the best rate but still only a 56 percent graduation rate.” And these graduation rates are without regard to how long it took for these students to actually earn their diploma. Further, “for those aspiring college students who finished in the bottom 40 percent of their high school classes, but went on to attempt to secure a four-year degree right out of high school, roughly two-thirds had studied for the better part of eight and a half years without obtaining a diploma.” Viewed in light of these findings, when it comes to graduation rates, I think you might be hard pressed to find that college athletic programs are other than the scapegoat for a much wider and pervasive problem in American educational institutions. The NCAA's GSR program was instituted to address student progress toward graduation to deflect a public perception problem by beating-up athlete's, coaches and programs who are largely blameless.