It's a common refrain heard every year during March Madness that big-time college athletics is incompatible with academics, particularly in 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 annual Sport report on teams' graduation rates in the NCAA's Division I men's basketball tournament is typical of 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. Not a single NCAA 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 that nationwide, graduation rates for all students, regardless of whether they participate in big-time athletic programs, are a mere 57%. While basketball players perform relatively worse than the general student body with a very 44% graduation rate, the difference is not nearly as significant 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 on athletic departments for failing to educate their minority students, African American basketball players at Division 1 schools graduate higher than their non-athletic peers.
Intentionally or not, these studies 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. The graduation rate among African American males 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 leave school early to enter into lucrative careers in the NBA, although they represent a minority of all college basketball players.
The NCAA calculates an alternative statistic called the "Graduation Success Rate (GSR)," which accounts for students who transfer, leave school. At the same time, 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%. However, admittedly there is no valid statistic to compare this number to the regular student body. Still, almost 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%.
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. The financial aid and academic assistance that athletes receive help minority student-athletes graduate higher than their peers.