There are plenty of reasons for the University of Iowa football program to boast about its pairing against No. 14 ranked Louisiana State University in this season’s Outback Bowl on Jan. 1.
But one of those reasons has nothing to do with standings or gridiron performance.
“When we recruit student athletes here, we emphasize a balance between academics and athletics,” said Liz Tovar, associate athletics director of UI Student-Athlete Academic Services.
And among this year’s 70 bowl-bound teams, the Hawkeye football program is one of 16 with a graduation success rate over 80. Iowa’s 81 percent graduation success rate is the highest among Big Ten Conference teams headed to bowl games, according to the UI athletic department.
Overall, among this season’s batch of bowl teams, the Hawkeye football squad ranks No. 16 in graduation success rate – which looks at the percentage of students who graduate in six years or fewer.
The NCAA introduced its own graduation success rate formula in 2005 to more accurately assess the academic success of student athletes. It differs from the federal graduation rate by holding schools accountable for transfer student-athletes and for students who enroll in the middle of the year.
Iowa’s most recent overall graduation success rate – which looks at Hawkeye athletes in all sports who started school in 2006 and graduated by 2012 at the latest – is 88. That also is above the average of 81 percent for all NCAA Division I institutions, and it’s the highest it has been since the NCAA rolled out its new formula.
In 2005, Iowa’s graduation success rate was 74.
The Hawkeye football program’s rate of 81 is 11 points better than the national average of 70. Bowl-game bound teams with a better graduation success rate than Iowa include Rice, Boston University, Notre Dame, Stanford and Duke, all with rates in the 90s.
Nebraska, with a rate of 76, and Minnesota and Ohio State, with rates of 75, placed just behind Iowa among Big Ten teams in bowl games this season.
LSU, Iowa’s opponent for the 2014 Outback Bowl, has a graduation success rate of 74.
Tovar credits Iowa’s strong student-athlete graduation rate to initiatives that begin the minute freshman arrive on campus. They are presented with academic expectations, including a set number of study hours each week, and they are given resources to help make that happen, Tovar said.
“Coordinators meet with freshman to talk about grades and help them manage their time effectively,” she said.
After freshman year, some student-athletes are required to continue meeting with coordinators and some are not, according to Tovar. But all continue using services offered through the Gerdin Athletic Learning Center.
“It’s about developing the entire person,” Tovar said. “It’s not just about if they are eligible to compete or not. We look at whether they are making progress toward their degree and how we can help them transition to life after college.”
There are more than 600 UI student-athletes this year, she said, and only a fraction of them will compete professionally in a sport after college.
“Our goal would be to help students achieve their goals after college,” Tovar said. “If that includes sports, great. If not, that’s fine too.”
She said student-athletes have unique challenges, in terms of time and energy management, warranting the additional staff resources. Expectations are high on the field and in the classroom, and student-athletes often have to make social sacrifices to meet those expectations.
“That equal balance is one reason why our student-athletes are so successful in the classroom,” she said. “There is a commitment by administrators, and it trickles down.”
UI Athletics Director Gary Barta told The Gazette that he’s proud of this year’s football squad “on so many levels.”
“They’ve positioned themselves well for a great bowl opportunity,” he said. “At the same time, our football student-athletes have made a strong commitment in the classroom.”
He said several of the team’s seniors will have received a degree before the bowl game, and the rest are on track to graduate in the spring.
“The recent graduation reports show Kirk’s team will be among the leaders in graduation success rates when compared to all teams competing in a bowl this year,” he said.
When looking at the athletic department as a whole, four UI teams – field hockey, women’s golf, softball and tennis – each boast a 100 percent graduation success rate this year. The UI squad with the lowest graduation success rate, according to the most recent NCAA report, is the UI wrestling squad with 70 percent.
Nine squads have scores in the 90s, and 14 UI teams have rates exceeding the national average for their peers – including the Iowa football and basketball squads.
“We have an athletic department slogan – win, graduate and do it right,” Barta said. “I’m so proud of the commitment all our Hawkeye teams are making in this area.”