Education Secretary Arne Duncan: Improve Division I Basketball Graduation Rates

Updated May 13, 2014

With March Madness in full swing, Education Secretary Arne Duncan says some NCAA tournament schools must do more to increase the graduation rates of their players – particularly African-Americans.

As NCAA action was tipping off Thursday, Duncan joined a sport and society scholar and the president of the NAACP on a news teleconference call to urge greater action on student-athlete graduation rates. Although most schools in the NCAA tournament are graduating more basketball players than in past years, significant gaps remain between the success rates of Whites and African-Americans.

The differences are “absolutely unconscionable,” the secretary said.

Data shows White male players from 2011’s tourney-bound schools graduate at a rate of 91 percent, but the rate for African-American men is only 59 percent. This gap has increased since 2006, says Dr. Richard Lapchick, president of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, which analyzed the data.

A gap in graduation rates also exists between women on NCAA tournament teams, he said, though the gap is smaller at 8 percentage points. Overall, Whites on NCAA women’s teams had a graduation rate of 92 percent, compared with 84 percent for African-Americans.

To address the problem, the secretary called for a ban on NCAA tournament participation if a school has less than 50 percent of its players on track for graduation. The tournament’s sizable revenue should go only to colleges on track to graduate at least half of its players.

“We need a more sensible balanced of athletics and academic priorities,” Duncan said.

According to Duncan, teams with low graduation rates reap $179 million in NCAA tournament money.

“That doesn’t make sense to me,” he said, adding that a 50 percent benchmark is just a minimum standard of success.

Eight schools in the men’s tourney field graduate all of their White and African-American male players including Brigham Young University, University of Illinois, Notre Dame, Utah State University and Villanova University.

At the other end of the spectrum was the University of Akron, which graduated no African-American players and only 38 percent of all players. Notable gaps included Kansas State University and the University of Arizona, each of which graduated 100 percent of White male players but only 14 percent of African-American males.

Large post-secondary institutions such as the University of Florida, University of Georgia and University of Kentucky were among schools with White/African-American graduation gaps of at least 60 percentage points among male players.

Student-athletes who jump to the NBA after one year of college are not included in these graduation figures, officials said.

Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, cited innovative practices at some institutions such as Xavier University in Ohio, which sends a nun and other staff to knock on doors and make sure students get to class. At Xavier, 89 percent of African-American male players and 100 percent of White players graduate.

“Schools should prepare students not just for success on the court but for success in life,” Jealous said.