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Dancing with Dumb Jocks?

It’s a common refrain heard every year during March Madness that big-time college athletics is incompatible with academics, particularly in the money-making sports such as football and men’s basketball. While this belief is widely held, it is also generally incorrect.

The University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport annual report on the graduation rates of teams in the NCAA’s Division I men’s basketball tournament is typical of the conventional wisdom. The study grimly notes that only 30 of the 65 teams in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament graduated at least 50 percent of their athletes within six years, and not a single team managed to graduate all of their recent players, although Patriot League champion Holy Cross, my employer, leads all participating teams with an 86% graduation rate.

The report further stresses that the situation among African American players is even worse. Seven teams failed to graduate a single black player over the most recent three seasons, and overall African American basketball graduation rates trailed the graduation rates of white players by 14 percentage points, 40% to 54%.

These statistics, however, do not tell the whole story. First of all, they neglect to mention the fact that nationwide, graduation rates for all students, regardless of whether they participate in big-time athletic programs, are a mere 57%. While basketball players do perform relatively worse than the general student body with a mere 44% graduation rate, the difference is not nearly as large as one might suspect given the level of attention athletic graduation rates receive.

Among African Americans, the overall graduation rate of the general student body is just 36%. Despite the criticism leveled on athletic departments for failing to educate their minority students, African American basketball players at division 1 schools actually graduate at a higher rate than their non-athletic peers.

These studies also, intentionally or not, tend to tar all athletes with the same brush. While basketball graduation rates trail those of the regular student body, among other sports, including football, the average graduation rate for white male athletes is within 1% of the graduation rate for the general population, and among African American males, the graduation rate is over 10% higher for athletes than non-athletes. Among women, athletes consistently graduate at rates at or above their peers.

Furthermore, the standard graduation rates used by the federal government fail to account for students who transfer to another institution and graduate instead from that school. The statistics also fail to account for players who, although they represent a minority of all college basketball players, leave school early to enter into lucrative careers in the NBA.

In fact, the NCAA calculates an alternative statistic called the "Graduation Success Rate (GSR)" which accounts for students who transfer, leave school while academically in good standing, or who enter the NBA. By the GSR, the teams in the tournament fare significantly better with an overall GSR of nearly 60%, although admittedly there is no valid statistic with which to compare this number to the regular student body. Still, nearly two-thirds of this year’s tournament teams graduated at least half of their student athletes as measured by the GSR and over half graduated at least 50% of their African American players. Four schools, including Holy Cross, managed a perfect GSR score of 100%.

All in all, while graduation rates hovering around 50% for elite basketball programs are nothing to cheer about, neither are they a cause for great concern. Low graduation rates are much more a function of the cost of college, students’ academic preparation in high school, and the realities of life, rather than a reflection on athletic departments. Indeed, athletic programs provide opportunities that may otherwise not be available for many students, and the financial aid and academic assistance that athletes receive help minority student athletes graduate at a higher rate than their peers.