Ben Miller is a policy analyst at Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington.
This week, 65 teams will begin competing in the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament. A billion-dollar, monthlong extravaganza, the tournament showcases the best of college sports—rabid fan bases, historic rivalries, and a format that puts small rural colleges on par with big state powerhouses. But beneath the glam and glitz lies a problem the NCAA would rather leave unnoticed: the dismal classroom performance of its student athletes. It's time the NCAA acknowledged that problem by including academic concerns in determining who makes the tournament.
Data demonstrate the lousy academic performance of most recent tournament participants. Federal data calculating the rate of graduation within six years for the four classes that enrolled from 1999 through 2002 show that on average, teams from last year's tournament graduated just 43 percent of their players. That includes six teams with graduation rates under 20 percent and two others in single digits. Then there's California State–Northridge, the only team where the chances of an NCAA player getting drafted by an NBA team—1.2 percent—were actually higher than its zero percent graduation rate.
An NCAA-created graduation rate formula that excludes students who turn professional, transfer, or drop out, as long as they leave in good standing, produces only slightly better results. Under this calculation, last year's teams had an average graduation rate of 59 percent, meaning that 2 out of every 5 players on the floor were still falling short academically.
Poor results notwithstanding, it's easy to dismiss academics as an ancillary issue. College basketball players are given a free college education, so who cares if they fail to take advantage of it?
While the student part of student athlete may not mean anything for the handful who go to the NBA, the vast majority of college basketball players will need the workforce training and preparation provided by a college degree. Evidence suggests even professionals could use additional education—Sports Illustrated estimated last year that 60 percent of NBA players go bankrupt within five years of retiring. The free schooling argument also ignores the fact that colleges, universities, and the NCAA (aided by an annual $545 million from its $6 billion deal with CBS) are making millions of dollars off their student athletes' abilities and paying them solely in a commodity that cannot be sold and must be completed in order to provide the greatest benefit.
For years, the NCAA has played up its academic component when convenient, touting the classroom-competition balancing act in TV ads and showing students' majors alongside season statistics during games. Now, it's time for the organization to back up its talk with tougher academic action. A good place to start is to follow the advice of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and penalize schools that do not value academics. Teams and coaches that graduate players at a lower rate than their institution's other student athletes should be at risk of losing scholarships. Teams with an NCAA-calculated graduation rate below 33 percent should not play in the postseason. These squads do not deserve to be rewarded with a spot on the NCAA's biggest stage when they clearly are not able to achieve even a low level of success off the court.
If enforced last year, this proposal would have kept 10 teams out of the tournament—a noteworthy number but hardly a mass expulsion. But last year's teams also show that academic success need not preclude on-court achievement. Villanova was a Final Four team, and it had an NCAA graduation rate of 92 percent. An additional 21 teams, including national champion North Carolina, had NCAA graduation rates at or above 75 percent.
Instead, new academic eligibility requirements would catch the bad apples, those like the University of Arizona, which cannot even pretend to care about academics after posting an 11 percent NCAA graduation rate.
A greater emphasis on academics provides other benefits. The current importance placed on winning now regardless of long-term costs rewards teams that lower academic standards. The results are not pretty. Memphis had a Final Four appearance erased by the NCAA after it discovered that the Tigers had been allowing an academically ineligible player to compete. Elite institutions such as Harvard have been accused of lowering standards in aggressive pursuit of better players. And then there is Binghamton University, which saw its first-ever tournament bid go from feel-good story to the loss of six players, the head coach, and the athletic director after it was revealed that the school admitted academically unqualified students, coaches wrote term papers, and athletes got credit for hard-hitting courses such as Theories of Softball. That's to say nothing of Binghamton athletes' multiple arrests in crimes ranging from possession of crack cocaine to using a stolen debit card.