As bowl teams head to the field this week, university leaders are trying to make sure those same football players are headed toward the graduation line, as well.
The University of Utah and Brigham Young University will each compete this week in a bowl game, but both institutions are facing challenges in getting degrees into their football players' hands.
While the two universities meet NCAA standards to maintain student athletic scholarships, the U. is facing a major success gap between its black and white students who play football. At the same time, BYU barely squeaked by the national standards for ushering its football players toward a degree.
At the U., which will face the University of Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 23, football players on scholarship post an overall graduation rate of 56 percent.
"They're monitoring very closely to make sure they are students as well as athletes," said JoAnne Hulbert-Eagan, director of academic services for athletics at the U. "Our trend definitely is progressing. We're making an effort, but it's a concern for everyone."
The U.'s graduation rate is slightly lower than Tulsa's 58 percent graduation rate, according to NCAA figures based on students who began college in 2000 and graduated within five years.
While that better-than-half rate keeps the U. from losing scholarships, Hulbert-Eagan said the underlying problem is the disparity between white and black players. White football players are graduating at about an 84 percent rate, while only about 45 percent of black players graduate.
That puts the U. in a grouping of only about 13 of 64 bowl teams this year with a racial gap wider than 30 percent, according the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, which analyzed the NCAA data as part of an annual study on bowl teams.
"Those numbers are not good, but we feel we're making progress," Hulbert-Eagan said. "This is something we address each year. We look to improve it on all levels. We look at gender and ethnicity and our comparison with other institutions."
About 42 percent of bowl-bound teams graduated fewer than half of their black athletes, while only 5 percent graduated fewer than half of white football athletes.
Hulbert-Eagan said there's no clear-cut reason why black students at the U. are so far behind the team's white players. Roughly 19 of the 120 members of the U. team are black, a much smaller percentage than at many other universities, she noted. That means the U.'s graduation rate for black athletes is volatile when even just a few black football players transfer to other institutions, leave the team to go pro or simply just don't make it to graduation.
"It was distressing that the U. was low like that," she said.
Overall, the 56 percent graduation success rate for the U.'s football players is also below the 74 percent graduation rate for all student athletes.
The picture is similar at BYU, where football players posted a 53 percent graduation rate based on the latest NCAA figures. While the gap between the white and black players is much smaller only about 6 percent the university just barely met graduation benchmarks set by the NCAA.
A new ranking system by the NCAA scores institutions on a 1-to-1,000 scale based on how quickly and how well student athletes are progressing towards graduation and completing a certain percentage of work each semester. Colleges must score at least a 925 to avoid sanctions.
BYU scored a 928 in the latest rankings, and the U. scored a 954.
Duff Tittle, spokesman for BYU athletics, said that the five-years-to-graduate system doesn't really work for BYU's unique team demographics, when many of the student athletes leave school for two years to serve missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
BYU leaders have fought the NCAA rankings for years, he said, but with little success.
"The whole graduation-rate scenario with us is a nightmare. It just kills us. It is a horrible indicator of our success rate," he said.
At the U., Hulbert-Eagan said athletic and academic leaders are working to stay above the 925 benchmark.
In the past several years, the university has hired a learning and reading specialist for student athletes, as well as started a new program for tutoring.