Mad About Graduation Rates

Yes, today marks the beginning of the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament, and most particularly, the two-day frenzy of first-round games that will severely damage the nation’s economic productivity. I have to admit this is the first year I can remember in a long time when I haven’t filled out a bracket, which is just as well since I haven’t much been watching hoops this year and would be operating according to someone else’s system, opinions, or angle.

Truth is, my own team, the Georgia Bulldogs, is in a “rebuilding” phase (where it has spent much of its time since the invention of the game), so I have no strong fan interest until the women’s tournament tips off on Saturday (Georgia plays Marist on Sunday). And because I don’t work in an office any more, I can’t participate in the ritual gathering around the TV set in the break-room to watch the ending of close games.

But all of us can participate, with enthusiasm or annoyance, in the adjacent debates over college sports and academics that break out at this time every year. At College Guide yesterday, Daniel Luzer focused on one: the obsession with athlete graduation rates, which is a specialty of Education Secretary Arne Duncan:

In 2010 [Duncan] proposed that that schools that graduated less than 40 percent of basketball players shouldn’t be eligible to participate in the tournament. Last year he suggested 50 percent. This year I was expecting 60 percent, just for consistency.

It perhaps makes sense to use the basketball tournament to force schools to improve their completion rates, but this particular focus on the graduation rate of the men’s basketball team seems somewhat misguided.

Perhaps I’m missing something but it seems to me star that players at major basketball powerhouses don’t drop out for the normal reasons students drop out, like the finances and poor preparation for college. These factors are so very important for institutions trying to improve their graduation rates.

Daniel’s right that this gets rather silly, though you could argue that the discussion of graduation rates does serve as a reminder that there should be some residual connection between colleges as academic institutions and the money-making venture of televised sports. That gets harder every year–except, it seems, with women, where among other things, the lure of a professional basketball career is less powerful and lucrative. Check out these new numbers from an AP story just yesterday:

The annual report by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport revealed players from the women’s teams graduated at an overall rate of 89 percent, compared with 67 percent for the men.

The women also have only an 8 percentage point disparity between white and African-American players. It is 28 percent on the men’s side. Also, 98 percent of the women’s teams, compared to 60 percent of men’s teams, graduated at least 60 percent of their players.

Just another reason to wait for Saturday to Go Mad.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.