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Low College Athlete Graduation Rates Causing Concern during March Madness

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Earlier this week 65 college teams began competing in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, a beloved month-long, billion dollar event known as March Madness. Watching the games at a neighborhood sports bar is enough to show that some fans get so wrapped up in the tournament, they almost forget that the players are still in school.

Duncan Feels NCAA Teams with Low Graduation Rates Should Not Play in Tournaments

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is also wrapped up in March Madness this year. Secretary Duncan says that colleges not on track to graduate at least half of their basketball players should not be allowed to compete in the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments. If such standards were currently in place, three women’s teams and 10 men’s teams, including heavy contenders Purdue and Syracuse, would not be playing in this year’s tournaments.

Developed by the NCAA as an early indicator of eventual graduation rates, the Academic Progress Rate, or APR, is a term-by-term measure of eligibility and retention for NCAA Division I student athletes. In an interview with USA Today, Secretary Duncan suggests that the NCAA should use its own standard as the metric to measure tournament teams and proposes bans for teams with an APR lower than 925, which predicts a graduation rate of roughly 50% of a team’s players.

“The math on this is not complicated,” Secretary Duncan stressed. “If you can’t graduate one in two of your student athletes, I just question the institutional commitment to academics. And I think if the NCAA were to draw a line in the sand, you’d see this behavior change very rapidly.”

Knight Commission Recommends NCAA Alter Tournament Payouts

New analysis released March 17, 2011 by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics shows that nearly $179 million, or nearly 44 percent, of the $409 million the NCAA awarded for basketball success in the past five tournaments was earned by teams failing to meet minimal academic standards.

According to Bloomberg, the Knight Commission, which was formed in 1989 by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in response to more than a decade of highly visible scandals in college sports, recommends that colleges on track to graduate less than half of their team members should be barred from competing. The Knight Commission also recommends that the NCAA should alter its payouts for the men’s basketball tournament to reward schools with higher graduation rates.

As mentioned above, Secretary Duncan agrees with these calls for changes. “It’s time to end rewarding teams millions of dollars for winning basketball games when they are failing to graduate their players. In the era of the ‘million-dollar game,’ I join the Knight Commission in advocating a reward system that recognizes teams that meet minimal academic standards,” he said in a statement issued to the press. “The NCAA should overhaul its tournament revenue distribution formula to make sure it stops richly rewarding success on the court with multimillion dollar payouts to schools that fail to meet minimum academic standards.”

“The financial rewards for winning cannot continue to far outweigh the penalties for academic failings. The Commission believes tournament slots, and the financial rewards that accompany them, should be reserved for teams that meet legitimate academic standards,” Knight Commission co-chairman R. Gerald Turner, who is also the president of Southern Methodist University, said in the press release issued by the Commission.

Racial Disparity among NCAA Graduates

Secretary Duncan, who co-captained the men’s varsity basketball team while he was a student at Harvard, grew up playing basketball on the South Side of Chicago. “I got to see the best that college sports had to offer—and, unfortunately, the worst,” he said during a joint press call with Richard Lapchick, Director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, and Benjamin Jealous, President and CEO of the NAACP. “I played with inner-city players who had been used and dumped by their universities. They had nothing to show for the victories and the revenues they had brought to their schools. When the ball stopped bouncing, they struggled to find work, had difficult lives, and some died early.”

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics at the University of Central Florida released results of Keeping Score When It Counts: Graduation Success and Academic Progress, a study that compares graduation rates of African-American and white basketball players for the 2011 NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament teams, on March 14, 2011. The study found that 91% of white and 59% of African-American men’s Division I basketball student-athletes graduate, a 32% gap.

According to a similar study conducted on female NCAA basketball teams, white female basketball players on tournament-bound teams graduate at a rate of 92% compared to 84% of black players on those teams—a 12% gap. In addition, researchers found that 0% of the women’s teams graduated less than 40% of players, compared to 10% of the men’s teams.

“The NCAA, university presidents and coaches have to stop rounding up the usual suspects to explain away the poor academic records and indefensible gaps in graduation rates of white and black players on a small number of men’s basketball teams,” Secretary Duncan said.

NCAA Wants to Improve Graduation Rates of Student Athletes

The NCAA also claims to want “better academic performance, especially for teams playing in the postseason,” at least according to an email from NCAA Vice President of Communications, Bob Williams. “Our governance bodies are currently exploring ways to improve academics, particularly related to initial eligibility standards. This will ensure that students are better prepared to be successful in the classroom when they arrive on campus. We hope to collaborate with the Department of Education to improve college preparation for all students,” his email said, reports USA Today.

In a separate article, USA Today reports that NCAA President Mark Emmert claims his organization also has the obvious goal of making sure everything that can encourage educational success and graduation among students-athletes is done.

“Secretary Duncan and I have spoken on a number of occasions about educational attainment issues, (including) his concern, that I share, about the preparation that young men and women bring in to college today, and that we all need collectively to improve on that,” President Emmert said during a news conference at Washington’s Verizon Center.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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