Grad Rates & March Madness

Public Affairs Consultant specializing in Issue Advocacy and Strategic Communications

The first two rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament make for the most exciting weekend in all of sports. I love March Madness, especially when small colleges get their 15 seconds of fame by taking powerhouse programs down to the wire.

This year, President Obama has made things even more interesting with his picks. He obviously knows more about college basketball than us Pac-10 followers who cried we were underrated.

Yet, it’s hard to remember that this is college basketball, particularly when the academic performance of so many schools is unacceptable.

According to the latest study from the Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sports (TIDES), only 63% of the tournament teams graduated half or more of their student athletes. And the authors are calling this good news because it’s better than last year!

To be fair, these figures are already old and do not always reflect recent changes in coaching personnel, athletic directors, admission standards and current players. The figures are based on the number of players who played between 2001-2006 and graduated within six years.

So, who is at the top? North Carolina, who President Obama picked to win it all. Other notable schools include BYU, Villanova and Duke. The embarrassments include Cal State Northridge and USC, who rank way below the target scores set by the NCAA. UCLA faired OK, above average but not in the some league as UNC and Duke.

Teams that consistently miss the target scores risk losing up to 10% of their scholarships. I think the penalty should be much more, perhaps losing eligibility for post-season play and additional scholarships, or at least being shipped across country to unfavorable brackets.

The other challenge for coaches is keeping talented players in school when NBA rookies can earn millions before they even turn 20 (see Kevin Love and OJ Mayo). Others simply cannot perform academically and never earn their diplomas.

I am not concerned about the handful of college players who are talented enough to play professionally. Instead, I am concerned about the majority of the other kids who don’t graduate and have trouble adjusting to lives off the court.

Of course, much of the problem stems from our obsession with sports figures and how we celebrate athletic prowess much more than academic achievement.

Case in point, the media always covers collegiate teams that won national championships when they visit the White House. Does the media ever cover collegiate debate teams or Rhodes Scholars when they visit the White House? Are they even invited to the White House?

Let’s hope the Obamas extend White House invitations to teams of distinction in both athletics and academics while the NCAA continues to prioritize academic performance.

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