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Officials Urge Raising the Academic Bar for NCAA Tournament Teams

Should teams with graduation rates below 40 percent be excluded from the NCAA Tournament? U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is suggesting precisely that. In a national news media teleconference held Wednesday afternoon, Duncan proposed that men’s and women’s teams that fail to graduate 40 percent of their players should be ineligible for post-season play.

“I predict you’ll see men’s basketball teams suddenly improve their academic outcome,” said Duncan, who played college basketball.

On the eve of the NCAA tournaments for Division I men’s and women’s basketball, Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, issued his annual study examining academic progress and graduation rates for Division I NCAA women’s and men’s basketball tournament teams. He was quick to note there was some good news.

Nineteen women’s teams in the tournament have 100 percent graduation rates. Ninety percent of White female players graduate, an increase of 1 percent from last year. Seventy-eight percent of African-American female players graduate, an increase of 3 percent. Among the men, 84 percent of White players graduate, up 6 percent from a year ago, and 56 percent of African-Americans graduate, a 2-percent increase. Players who transfer or leave prior to graduation to play in the NBA do not count against the graduation rate.

There is, however, a continuing persistent gap between White and African-American basketball student-athletes. Lapchick, Duncan, and Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, all stated that the bar must be raised across the board.

“This is really about putting a spotlight on the books,” Jealous said. “There is a spotlight on the court. We all know how these teams perform on the court and how they’ll do in this competition. What we tend not to pay attention to is what they do with these athletes, whether or not they actually graduate.”

“Let’s stop for a second,” Jealous added. “Let’s focus on the books to make sure we set the same sort of high expectations the fans have for the teams’ performances on the court for the players in the classroom.”

Duncan readily acknowledged it can be a challenge to raise graduation rates for players who come from high schools in poverty-stricken areas or from families where they are the first to attend college. That is not an excuse, he noted.

“Seven teams in this year’s tournament graduate 100 percent of their players—Black and White. At the other end of the spectrum by contrast, nine teams have a discrepancy of 60 percentage points or more in graduation rates between their White and Black players. You cannot tell me that these discrepancies that large are unrelated to a program’s practices and an institution’s fundamental priorities. It doesn’t take an elite university like a Duke or a Georgetown or Notre Dame to have a high graduation rate,” Duncan said.

Because post-season play is such a tangible goal for Division I teams, making it contingent on satisfactory rates—raised higher and higher over time—will spur institutions to implement policies and procedures to see their teams make the cut.

“If a university can’t have two out of five of their student-athletes graduate, I don’t know why we’re rewarding them with post-season play,” said Duncan, who noted that none of the 68 FBS (formerly Division I-A) football teams had graduation rates under 40 percent.

“We have so many success stories,” Duncan stated. “It’s simply because there’s an institutional commitment. They value their student-athletes getting an education.”

Jealous said student-athletes will rise to the bars set for them. The figure of 40 percent would be the overall graduation rate for all athletes on a team.

Some researchers have asked the question of whether some institutions may be pushing student-athletes into easy majors to ensure graduation. Jealous called that “cynical.”

Lapchick compared it to high school athletics in the 1980s and ‘90s when it was mandated that students maintain a “C” average or better in order to participate in sports. Some critics feared it would raise dropout levels. Instead, it had the opposite effect. Coaches got involved because they wanted their athletes to be academically eligible.

“Every experience I can think of involving student-athletes, where you raise the bar academically, they’ve jumped over the bar,” Lapchick said.

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