Orlando, Fla. The number of black athletes getting diplomas across all NCAA Division I sports jumped 24 percentage points from 1984 to 2004, marking big gains for a demographic that once recorded just 35 percent graduation success, according to a study released Thursday.
Black athletes were at least 15 percent more likely to graduate if they entered college in 1998 instead of 1984, according to the report by the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
Female black athletes remained more successful than males, graduating 73 percent of the time compared with 54 percent for men. The same was true of whites, with 73 percent of women graduating and 66 percent of men. Graduation success for all whites still outpaced black athletes 66 percent to 52 percent, according to federal graduation rates cited in the study.
"Certainly, the data is trending in the right direction," NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said. "The increases for all African-American student athletes were between 15 and 18 percent, and that's good, but that doesn't mean the job's over. There's room for improvement, and we hope that institutions are able to continue that trend working upward."
The percentage improvements for black athletes from 1984 until 2004 were calculated using the NCAA's new graduation success rates - considered more accurate than federal numbers because they include transfer students.
By that standard, 59 percent of black athletes got their diplomas in the latest year. No NCAA data for white athletes was included in the study. The report studied each class of students entering college by year, and athletes were allotted six years to graduate.
Study author Richard Lapchick said the results were good news for college athletics.
"The most encouraging thing is finally it's narrowing," Lapchick said of the racial performance gap. "This is something I've been writing about for so long, and it's been the most discouraging thing about athletics and academics - that gap has been persistently wide, and has in some cases gotten wider."
Lapchick also noted that black athletes continue to graduate at higher rates than black students in general. Forty-three percent of black students in general graduated, compared with 59 percent of black student-athletes.
In revenue-generating sports, black men's basketball players graduated 49 percent of the time, compared with 54 percent for black football players and 71 percent for women's basketball players, according to the study.