"The academic achievements of our student-athletes are mentioned in the same breath and spirit as Notre Dame and Stanford."

Donna Shalala on Monday, August 29th, 2011 in a video statement

Mostly False

Donna Shalala says UM's athletes are mentioned in the same breath as Notre Dame and Stanford

In this April 19, 2011 photo, University of Miami President Donna Shalala speaks during a news conference in Coral Gables, Fla. (AP)

As news spread that a convicted Ponzi schemer said he plied University of Miami football players with everything from booze to prostitutes, university president Donna Shalala tried -- as best she could -- to spin the story away from the troubling allegations.

"Let us not forget who we are," Shalala said in a video posted on the university's website Aug. 29. "Nationally the academic achievements of our student-athletes are mentioned in the same breath and spirit as Notre Dame and Stanford. This is because we are first and foremost an academic institution."

Notre Dame. Stanford. And ... UM. Really?

PolitiFact Florida felt compelled to tackle (pun intended) this question about academic excellence.

Shalala relied on two sources of data to back up her claim -- graduation rates for student-athletes and a measure crafted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the NCAA, to measure the progress of student-athletes.

For the 2009-10 year, UM student-athletes had what the NCAA calls a "graduation success rate" of 86 percent. That means that 86 percent of student-athletes who started between 2000-03 graduated within six years. According to NCAA statistics, UM ranks 7th in the 12-school Atlantic Coast Conference (Duke and Boston College graduated 97 percent of their student-athletes, for instance) and well behind the graduation rates at Notre Dame (99 percent) and Stanford (94 percent).

The other measure Shalala cited -- specifically when it comes to the football program -- is called "academic progress rate." The APR measures, as its title suggests, progress -- not academic achievement; students get points for being academically eligible and staying in school. To the APR, a student-athlete who scores all C's in music therapy would "look" the same as one who scores A's in organic chemistry.

And by that measure, the most recent scores for the three schools' football programs are close -- 979 for UM, 977 for Stanford and 971 for Notre Dame.

That's good -- a 1,000 is a perfect score -- but not that uncommon. On the NCAA's website, we found about 28 university football programs that have APR scores between 971 and 979 and an additional 20 schools with better scores. So Notre Dame, Stanford and UM share the spotlight with Wofford, Appalachian State and the University of North Dakota.

But Shalala's pointing to a very limited source of information about student-athletes. Mark Nagel, a professor in sport management at the University of South Carolina, described the APR as a "public relations mechanism" created by the NCAA. 

"What APR is telling you is that the students are remaining eligible and retained on campus," Nagel said. "It is not telling you their majors, educational outcomes or what they are learning."

And the APR rates certainly don't indicate if students are, as one professor described it, taking "rinky-dink courses." A 2006 New York Times article showed that the Auburn University football team performed phenomenally on APR -- even finishing ahead of academically stout Duke. It turned out that many of the Auburn athletes were taking the equivalent of an independent study from the same sociology professor.

Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor who has written about the business of sports, says APR doesn't measure the quality of students' progress or learning -- just simply that they aren't dropping out.

"I would never compare the academic quality or achievement at two universities on the basis of drop-out rates,'' he said. "It seems to me the educational process is deeper and richer and more complex. But, by the same token, the APR is not a meaningless number."

APR also doesn't measure how rigorous (or not) the courses are or whether they are relying on tutors, Zimbalist said. 

"It's kind of shocking (Shalala) would consider APR to be a valid comparative measurement or the most important measure of academic achievement," he said.

(We should note that in our research we found that Stanford had some academic achievement blemishes of its own. Athletes had access to a list of classes known as easy A's such as "Beginning Improvising" and another in "Social Dances of North America III." That list has been discontinued.)

We're not the only ones to pick on Shalala's claim here -- Inside Higher Ed, an online publication, concluded that she "engaged in some hyperbole." 

Anyway, back to what Shalala said, which was: "Nationally the academic achievements of our student-athletes are mentioned in the same breath and spirit as Notre Dame and Stanford." 

This is a case where there is not a lot of evidence to back Shalala up. She cites graduation rates -- which are significantly lower for UM compared to Notre Dame and Stanford -- and the NCAA-developed "academic progress rate." But that measure awards points to students for remaining academically eligible and enrolled in school.

If that's your definition of "academic achievement," we'd like to know where we can sign up for classes.

Nagel, the sport management professor from South Carolina, summed it up best: "I have a sneaking suspicion that the only time those three schools are discussed in the same (breath) and spirit is within the halls of the University of Miami’s administrative offices."

We rate this claim Mostly False.