The Real March Madness: NCAA Graduation Rates

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says it's time the NCAA stopped rewarding teams that fail to meet basic academic standards off the court.

As college basketball fans tune in to the NCAA tournament, the Obama administration hopes that they’ll also start thinking about their favorite teams’ academic credentials. A new report (pdf) from the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) shows unconscionable disparities in the graduation rates between black and white players on men’s teams. While 91 percent of white NCAA players graduate, only 59 percent of black players do — an ever-widening 32 percent gap.

“Intercollegiate sports have played a big role in my life,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan during a Thursday conference call, joined by NAACP president Ben Jealous and Richard Lapchick, director of TIDES. Both he and his sister played college basketball. “I played with guys who had helped their college programs earn millions of dollars, only to be dropped without a college degree when their playing days were over. And when their glory days on the court were finished, they had very difficult lives off the court.”

Bad as the overall figure is, the numbers can be worse on an individual school basis. According to the TIDES report, Kansas State University graduates 100 percent of its white players but only 14 percent of its black players. The University of Akron graduates 100 percent of its white players … and zero percent of its black players.

Armed with those figures, Duncan made three recommendations for NCAA tournament reform:

1. Teams that are not on track to graduate at least half of their players should be ineligible for postseason play. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics first made the same recommendation ten years ago. “If you can’t manage to graduate half of your players, how serious is the institution and the coach and the program about their players’ academic success?” Duncan said.

2. Raise the bar for postseason eligibility using the Academic Progress Rate (APR), a metric used by the NCAA to track graduation progress over a four-year period. A 925 APR equates to being in sight of graduating half of a team’s players. “Teams with APRs below 925 should be ineligible for post-season glory,” said Duncan.

3. Restructure the NCAA tournaments revenue-distribution formula. This proposal comes from a recent Knight Commission analysis that found that over the past five years, $179 million went to teams that were not graduating half its players. “Right now the formula handsomely rewards teams for winning games in the tournament, but does little to reward teams for meeting minimal academic benchmarks,” said Duncan.

What makes the problem particularly confounding is that most college basketball programs graduate their players just fine. Eight teams in this year’s tournament graduated 100 percent of their black and white players in recent years, including the University of Illinois, Villanova and Utah State. Women’s collegiate teams fare even better, with one in three teams in the women’s NCAA tournament having a 100 percent graduation rate.

“When you are coaching student-athletes, you have a responsibility to them both as an athlete and a student,” said Ben Jealous, who commended schools that do a good job, such as Xavier University, which has a nun knock on players’ doors to make sure they head to class in the morning and study at night. “It happens because coaches decide to make sure that the young men are prepared for victory in life and not just on the court.”