New NCAA Eligibility Rules Force Universities to Up Their Academic Game

As March Madness draws to a close, basketball fans have more to worry about than just bracket busters in upcoming years.  Several tournament teams will need to ratchet up their athletes’ academic performances if they want to return to the Big Dance.  Former Harvard hoopster and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan led an effort urging university presidents to pass the 50% on track to graduate eligibility requirement for postseason play.  The new NCAA rule, that passed in October, will use an Academic Progress Rate (APR) which rewards student athletes for remaining eligible, continuing education at the same institution, and will be phased in over the next four years.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport publishes a series of studies that examines the academic performance and Graduation Success Rates (GSR) of the 2012 NCAA Division I women’s and men’s basketball tournament teams.  Applying the new 50% standard, the Institute’s Director Dr. Richard Lapchick and his colleagues find only three teams (McNeese State, Prairie View A&M, and Tennessee-Martin) in the women’s field would be ineligible for postseason competition compared to 13 teams on the men’s side (Connecticut, Syracuse, St. Louis, Florida State, Indiana, Southern Mississippi, Colorado State, Colorado, Mississippi Valley State, New Mexico State, Norfolk State, Ohio, and St. Bonaventure).  In sum, both GSR and APR figures suggest women’s basketball  teams are outperforming men’s teams and the gap between African American and white student athletes remains sizeable (more so for male athletes).  Thus, in many ways, these findings highlight gender and racial educational inequality patterns we see more broadly.

Lapchick states, “Race remains a continuing academic issue.  By itself, the 28 percentage point gap between graduation rates for white and African American student-athletes (men’s rates) demonstrates that.  However, it must be emphasized that African-American male basketball student-athletes graduate at a much higher rate than African-American males who are not student-athletes.  The graduation rate for African American male college students as a whole is only 38 percent, a full 22 percentage points lower than for African-American male basketball student-athletes.”

While the gap between white and African American or between women and men student athletes is troubling, I think Lapchick’s point about the subgroup discrepancies between student-athletes and non-athletes is also worth noting.  Universities adopt a variety of programs and devote substantial resources (e.g., tutors, study centers, counseling and financial advice, etc.) to support athletes in order to keep them academically eligible to play.  While I would argue these practices are far from altruistic, they do offer some promising ways we could raise graduation rates for ALL students.