Blog: The Educated Reporter

Do the March Madness Teams Score on Graduation Day?

Men may get the TV ratings, but women are earning the degrees, finds a new study that looked at racial and gender graduation trends among college student athletes.

Overall, the report, released on Monday by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida (UCF), found incremental academic gains among college players participating in this year’s NCAA basketball tournament ,and while black male players are catching up slightly to their white male peers, women are demonstrating much higher gains in graduation rates.

The academic well-being of student athletes has come under recent scrutiny, but in a press call with reporters, Sec. of Education Arne Duncan praised the efforts of college presidents and the NCAA to stiffen penalties for athletic programs in which fewer than 50 percent of their student athletes are on pace to graduate with a college degree. Teams that don’t make the cut will be ineligible for playoff competition beginning in the 2015-2016 school year—rules that the NCAA finalized in October of last year.

Duncan said it is “entirely unfair” that a student-athlete leaves a school without a degree while universities are “reaping millions of dollars in benefits.”

The TIDES report indicates the Graduation Success Rate (GSR) for this year’s March Madness men’s teams increased to 67 percent from 66 percent last year. The report’s most current GSR figures are from the 2009-2010 school year, and reflect student graduation rates after six years of college enrollment. The index was launched by NCAA in 2001.

The study also noted a 3 percent bump in the number of teams in the tournament graduating half of their players. The GSR for male black basketball players rose to 60 percent; it was 59 percent last year. The gap between black and white players on tournament bound-teams decreased by four percent, but much of that difference is due to a drop in white players’ graduation rates, which dipped to 88 percent from 91 percent. 

Female athletes performed much better, according to the report: The women graduated at a rate of 89 percent compared with the 67 percent for men. The racial gap in graduation rates among women’s teams was much lower than the men’s, with 93 and 85 percent of white and black female players, respectively, graduating.

Several marquee programs in the men’s tournament this year would not be eligible to play under the tougher academic rules that go into effect in the 2015-16 school year. Indiana, Syracuse, Florida State and University of Connecticut all posted Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores below the 930 threshold. APR uses a four-year average of a team’s academic performance that includes student-athletes eligibility for graduation at the same school.

Asked by a reporter whether those teams should be in the tournament this year, Sec. Duncan said, “The short answer is if they don’t improve, they won’t be going forward.”

Among teams in this year’s men’s tournament, 79 percent (54 teams) graduated at least half of their student-athletes, a three-point bump from last year. Another bright trend is the drop in the number of schools that graduated fewer than 40 percent of their players—down to seven percent compared with 10 percent last year.

The Washington Post and Inside Higher Ed created a bracket of how tournament teams would fare if APR and graduation rates, not baskets, decided which teams go forward. View them here and here.