NCAA Tournament Doesn't Keep Students From Class at Top Universities

Most universities don’t use the NCAA Tournament as an excuse for a day off.


On Thursday and Friday, there's a strong chance that a rash of sore throats, fevers, and food poisoning will befall America's workforce. The cure for these sudden ailments? A little rest and a lot of basketball. Some workers might opt to stay at home as the NCAA Tournament begins this week, and many more will find themselves glued to streaming video and live updates of the 32 games that take place during the workdays. In fact, the Chicago-based consulting firm Challenger, Gray, & Christmas estimates that American employers will lose $1.8 billion in worker productivity because of the tournament. 

While the tournament's effect on corporate America is well documented, college campuses nationwide are also susceptible to the madness of March. A few professors opt to cancel class altogether. Others don't mind that students check scores on their laptops or BlackBerrys. However, in some classes, the tournament isn't a complete siphon of productivity. In fact, it's quite the opposite, as professors are able to use the tournament to foster a boost in productivity and energy from their students. 

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Basketball was an integral part of the college experience for Ari Kohen, who attended Michigan State University and Duke University. Now, he's the Schlesinger assistant professor of social justice at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and his love of the game permeates his teaching every March.

Kohen invites his students to enter a bracket pool, and the winner receives extra credit that can give his or her grade a slight bump just after midterms. He also holds office hours on the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament at a local sports bar or restaurant that shows the games on multiple TVs. While there, students are as prone to discuss an upcoming paper as they are Syracuse University's effective use of the 2-3 zone. He even spends the opening minutes of classes on Mondays that follow tournament games to talk basketball, which tends to draw students who are typically hesitant to participate in class discussions out of their shells. Kohen claims the enthusiasm they display when they converse about the weekend's actions on the hardwood tends to carry over when the conversation reverts back to academia. "It's a fun thing," he says. "One thing that I try to do is experiment with different ways to connect with students. This one is a no-brainer." 

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While Kohen says that he wouldn't cancel class for the sake of the tournament and that attendance remains steady despite students' interest in the games, some programs opt to cancel classes altogether. Students enrolled in San Diego State's sports business M.B.A. program are granted an extra holiday every year when the tournament kicks off. Scott Minto, the program's director, has given the students the first Thursday of the tournament off (Fridays are always off days) since he took over the program three years ago. Given that it's a sports-oriented program, Minto feels that students—especially international ones, who comprise 25 percent of those enrolled—can learn a great deal by watching the games. Plus, he feels students and teachers alike would be distracted during class time. "The first Thursday and Friday of games are some of the most exiting days in American sports," he says. "It didn't make sense to hold classes because it's really difficult to keep students' attention that day." 

While sports business programs may have a good reason to take the day off, many top-tier universities, even those with consistently successful basketball programs, don't give their students a break for the sake of basketball. Minto attended Georgetown University, 23rd in U.S.News & World Report's rankings of national universities, as an undergrad and remembers professors showing no leniency regarding attendance during the tournament. Similarly, Kohen says that classes weren't canceled and attendance numbers were solid in his early teaching years at Duke and Wake Forest University, both in the top 30 in the national university rankings and frequent participants in the NCAA Tournament.