What’s Missing from March Madness? Better Academics

Cross-posted from The Washington Post.

As March Madness gets underway this week, 10 of the 68 men’s teams in the NCAA tournament are not on track to graduate half of their players. Colleges and universities need to stop trotting out tired excuses for basketball teams with poor academic records and indefensible disparities in the graduation rates of white and black players. And it is time that the NCAA revenue distribution plan stopped handsomely rewarding success on the court with multimillion-dollar payouts to schools that fail to meet minimum academic standards.

Like millions of fans, I’ll be watching the tournament, rooting for my favorites. As a kid on the South Side of Chicago who loved basketball, I got to see the best and the worst of college sports. I spent time on the court with inner-city players who had been used and dumped by their universities. When the ball stopped bouncing, they struggled to find work and had difficult lives. Some died early. The dividing line for success was between those who went to college and got their degrees, and those who did not. If a team fails to graduate even half of its players, how serious are the institution and coach about preparing their student-athletes for life?

The NCAA developed a measure known as the Academic Progress Rate index (APR) to track progress toward graduation with real-time data. According to the NCAA, an APR score of 925 (on a scale of 1,000) is equivalent to having 50 percent of a squad’s members on track to graduate. This year, the 10 men’s basketball teams with APRs below 925 include basketball powerhouses Syracuse and Kansas State. At Kansas State in recent years, 100 percent of white players graduated, but just 14 percent of black players did.

A new analysis, released today by the Knight Commission, shows the current tournament revenue formula is badly skewed to reward success on the court, with little expectation of success off the court. Each game a team plays in the tournament this year earns more than $1.4 million for the team’s conference.

Over the past five tournaments, the NCAA has awarded more than $400 million to conferences and their teams for tournament appearances. Nearly $179 million of that payout—44 percent of the total—went to teams that were not on track to graduate at least half of their players. By contrast, tournament revenue provides comparatively little funding for educational uses or academic improvement.

When I raised the issue of low graduation rates among men’s teams last year, skeptical sportswriters said I didn’t understand the realities of big-time college basketball. But every year, the litany of excuses for why basketball teams cannot graduate most players and still have a championship team is less convincing.

In last year’s tournament, the two finalists, Duke and Butler, both had outstanding academic records. This year, eight teams in the tournament graduate 100 percent of both their black and white players: Belmont, Brigham Young, Illinois, Notre Dame, Utah State, Vanderbilt, Villanova and Wofford.

The top-ranked women’s basketball teams have even better records. Twenty-two women’s teams in this year’s NCAA tournament—one in three—graduate 100 percent of their black and white players. The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, which set the NCAA record for consecutive wins this season, graduates more than 90 percent of its players. Meanwhile, the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team has an APR of 930, a hair above a projected 50 percent graduation rate. Only 25 percent of its black players earn degrees.

The dramatic improvement in graduation rates among big-time football programs shows that a 50 percent graduation standard is not that difficult to meet and that teams will improve their academic performance to meet higher standards. Five years ago, 23 bowl teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision had APRs below 925. This year, one FBS bowl team had an APR below 925.

The NCAA has made considerable progress in recent years boosting the academic performance of Division I teams. But the bar for postseason play is still too low: In effect, teams must now be on track to graduate fewer than 40 percent of their players for six years running to potentially be ineligible for postseason play. Last year, out of more than 6,000 NCAA intercollegiate sports teams, one squad in men’s basketball was banned from postseason play because of a poor academic record.

A decade after the Knight Commission recommendation, coaches of teams with weak academic records should worry not just about getting athletes in a uniform—but also about getting them in a cap and gown.

The writer is secretary of education.


  1. We all need to wake up and face reality; this nation cannot compete in the 21st-century global marketplace by being the least-educated industrial nation in the world … a nation in which its colleges and universities serve as prostitutes for the sports entertainment industry—focusing resources on athletics at the expense of academics and covering up the academic corruption in their sports entertainment businesses with “reforms” such as the APR. See my comment, “Why the NCAA’s latest reform measures won’t work,” at http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2005/03/14/lombardi4

    Although college-completion and graduation-rate goals stressed by President Obama and Secretary Duncan are certainly important, the quality of the educational process is absolutely critical. It makes no sense to increase graduation rates if the graduates have not responded to a challenge to engage in the serious process of personal and intellectual formation while learning how to work hard— learning what they need to learn and how to learn it.

    The quality of higher education in America is declining relative to education in nations that prioritize academics over athletics. America could very well be losing its economic and technological preeminence. If it keeps doing what it has been doing, it will not have the intellectual capital to address the major economic, health, environmental, and security issues facing our nation in the 21st century … a century that is witnessing what Fareed Zakaria has termed the “rise of the rest.”

    Finally, a word from 2005 by Frank Deford: “Athletics is privileged, and athletes have come to form a mandarin class, where they play by different rules and thereby diminish the substance and the honor of education. That is the real March Madness, all year long.

    Frank G. Splitt, Member
    The Drake Group

  2. Typical bad numbers from government. In March Madness each team gets about $250,000 per game paid out in six payments. The actual amount is determined the following year by the NCAA but this amount is the standard.

  3. Indefensible disparity in graduation rates between white and black players??? What are you saying race determines? Course selection? Professor’s grading scale? Amount of time they are allowed in study hall? Amount of time they are allowed in the library? What is it???

  4. Scott your are partially right on this but the real reason is that the focus is on athletics when you get a scholarship not academics this is why so many athletes who are unable to properly manage their time and grades have to choose between an athletic scholarship which is paying their tuition or on grades which never got them a scholarship more than likely in the first place.


  5. I agree with Scott. The DOE should do its research yet. Better yet, leave March Madness alone and do some serious investigation into the for profit educational institutions that are fleecing America. Why are our public universities and Community Colleges not getting any financial help while for profit colleges led by Bridgepoint Education, line their pockets with taxpayer money? All indications are that the rate of loan paybacks is very low and people who enroll in these colleges are getting worthless degrees = no jobs = inability to pay on Federal school loans. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure this out. Yes, my money and yours! One only has to pay attention to the Senate hearings underway on for profit colleges to know that some of these institutions should be closed and/or made more accountable.

  6. Principal: Why I hate March
    By Valerie Strauss
    My guest is George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, and executive director of the non-profit Forum for Education and Democracy, a collaboration of educators from around the country.

    By George Wood

    I used to love March.

    I attended the University of North Carolina as an undergraduate and March meant madness of the best kind. There was the ACC Basketball Tourney and then the NCAA playoffs—and of course, March meant spring break as well.

    Now, I hate it. Forget the fact that there is so much more to love as I have grown older. Sure, there is still the basketball—and for all you doubters my Tar Heels have returned! And with March my farm comes alive, starting with the Spring Peepers calling from the creeks, the first bass from the ponds, and wildflowers in fields and the smell in the woods telling me spring is here.

    While it should be one of my favorite months all of this is overshadowed by the most important part of March for the kids and schools in Ohio–the annual madness called the Ohio Graduation Tests.

    For five days during either the second or third week of March (it depends upon when your spring break falls) tenth-grade students across Ohio sit for five days for tests that will decide whether or not they will graduate from school two years later. Those same tests also determine the school’s ranking with the state and whether it will fall prey to the Adequate Yearly Progress measures that determine its fate with the state and federal government.

    For five days students sit for 2 1/2 hours taking tests in reading, math, writing, science and social studies. During these five days students face a barrage of questions covering the Boxer Rebellion to quadratic equations, possessive plurals to theocracies, Punnett squares to the meaning of a poem–questions that I doubt any adult in Ohio not currently in high school could answer. It is like nothing they have done before and nothing they will ever do again. And yet it is one of the most important measures of their success in school.

    We have been giving some version of these tests for nearly 20 years now—and I keep wondering why.

    Someone once said (it is attributed to Einstein, but no one is really sure) that the definition of madness is continuing to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

    Our own March madness is exactly this. We continue to give standardized tests as if giving them will in some way improve schools. Sure enough, each year states enter into the test score sweepstakes (led by Education Week magazine among others) to see whose scores are the highest. So what?

    There is no study that links the scores on these exams with success in life, college, the military, or the workplace. There is no study that says these tests have led to a richer or more challenging curriculum, or more engaging teaching practices, or more welcoming schools (in fact, the evidence seems to suggest just the opposite). There is no study that says that the money we are spending on these things is a good investment, with more of a payoff than, say, more teachers, books, supplies, or extracurricular activities. There is simply no evidence that doing more of the same will get us different results.

    But when you are suffering from madness, reason does not matter.

    Which is probably why I have the Tar Heels winning the national championship in my local pool.

  7. Way to twist numbers to benefit your argument. If you know anything about college sports you would know that transfers affect that number. So Scott Martin transferring from Purdue to Notre Dame is a negative in your eyes? Purdue is one of the top academic institutions in the world. Do your research on APR before you try and use it as an argument.

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