Third Annual Academic March Madness
by Lindsey Luebchow
There haven't been many upsets in this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament, as big name basketball powerhouses have dominated the hardwood. But evaluate the Sweet Sixteen based on the most important academic competition of studying for and obtaining a meaningful degree and you'll find that most of the top teams wouldn't even come close to cutting down the nets in Detroit early next month.
Higher Ed Watch's third annual Academic Sweet Sixteen examines the remaining teams in the NCAA men's basketball tournament to see which squads are matching their on-court success with academic achievement in the classroom. And for the third consecutive year, academic indicators produce a championship game match-up that isn't on anyone's radar: Purdue versus Villanova, with Purdue's 80 percent graduation rate trumping Villanova's 67 percent. The University of North Carolina and Michigan State, meanwhile, round out the Final Four with graduation rates of 60 percent.
Beyond UNC, the other top seeds wouldn't be booking any tickets to Detroit. Louisville may be the overall number one seed in the tournament, but its 40 percent graduation rate wouldn't get it past the Elite Eight. That's at least better than the University of Connecticut and its dismal 25 percent graduation rate, or Pittsburgh, which has a respectable 58 percent graduation rate, but is just below Xavier's 60 percent mark.
The Academic Sweet Sixteen is a higher-stakes competition. Every year, over half of the basketball players in Division I leave college without a degree. While a select handful of these players will move on the NBA, the vast majority of those that do not graduate will be left with little academic training, minimal career options, and only the fading glory of college hoops as compensation. And the schools these players "studied" at won't shed any tears -- having already made millions of dollars off of their talents.
This bracket tries to expose these stark realities that are never part of the tournament's "One Shining Moment" highlight reel.
The Academic Sweet Sixteen bracket evaluates academic performance based on the federal graduation rate of each of the remaining teams in this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament. The most recent data available look at the average graduation rate of the four classes that entered school between 1998 and 2001 and graduated within six years of initial enrollment.
Graduation rates are not the ideal measure of academic success. Just because a student-athlete graduates doesn't take into account whether that student was funneled into a less rigorous "jock major" that provides few workplace-ready skills. Unfortunately, these are the best data publicly available from the NCAA, and until the NCAA provides more transparency on academic outcomes -- for example, courses, majors, average GPAs -- this is what we have to use.
At the top of this year's bracket are Purdue and Villanova, which appear to have figured out how to balance the academic needs of their student-athletes with the large athletic demands of playing on nationally ranked basketball teams. Other top performers include Duke, UNC, Michigan State, and Xavier, all with graduation rates of 60 percent and above. Purdue's 80 percent graduation rate tops the 73 percent of last year's champion Davidson. (Two years ago, Butler dominated by graduating 82 percent of its players.) Overall, this year's Final Four has an average graduation rate of 68 percent, one percentage point higher than last season.
Unfortunately, many schools are clearly having trouble balancing athletics and academics. Arizona is by far the worst-performing Sweet Sixteen team with a graduation rate of just 13 percent, followed by UConn (25 percent), Missouri (25 percent), and Gonzaga (27 percent). Instead of supporting their players as students, these schools are using them to gain access to a highly profitable national stage, and reaping the rewards. Though Arizona has appeared in every NCAA tournament for the last quarter century, the university has clearly forgotten that collegiate athletes are students first. Missouri, meanwhile, again shows its inability to translate athletic success into the classroom -- the Tigers came in 18th in Higher Ed Watch's second annual academic ranking of the top 25 football teams.
But just because a team's overall graduation rate is high doesn't mean that it is graduating its white and black players at an equal rate. This is a significant concern: the most recent data show that 54 percent of Division I white players left with a degree, compared to only 42 percent of black players.
While we don't have full disaggregated data by race for every team (small sample sizes are not reported for privacy reasons), we do know that Purdue, Kansas, and Louisville had particular success graduating black players. Purdue comes out on top again with a 100 percent graduation rate for its black players, while Villanova, Kansas, and UNC all posted black graduation rates of 67 percent. Then there are teams like Michigan State, Pittsburgh, and Xavier, which all graduated 100 percent of their white players, but only graduated half of their black players (or even less for Michigan State-43 percent). Two teams, Arizona and Gonzaga, failed on average to graduate even a single black player over the classes that entered school from 1998 to 2001. Once these schools accept a player, it is their responsibility to give him or her equal opportunity to achieve in the classroom, regardless of race. Unfortunately, it is clear that a disappointingly large number of the elite basketball teams are not living up to this challenge.
In measuring the athletic achievement of college athletes, the NCAA prefers to use its own graduation rate measure, the Graduation Success Rate (GSR). This metric takes the federal graduation rate data, but then includes transfer students, such as junior college players, who enter a program and then graduate, and allows schools to exclude students that left school but would have been academically eligible. While there are some positives to the GSR-for example, there's an argument that schools should not be penalized for players that leave early for the NBA-we believe the measure artificially inflates the numbers and is easily manipulated by schools that do not have their players' futures and best interests at heart.
Using the GSR in the bracket produces a toss-up championship game where Purdue (77 percent) would lose to either Duke or Villanova (both 89 percent), while UNC (86 percent) and Kansas (64 percent) round out the Final Four. At the bottom end, Arizona's 20 percent and UConn's 33 percent are a bit better than their federal graduation rates, though they still remain far behind the top teams.
So why are athletes at schools like Purdue and Villanova doing so well in the classroom, while others are struggling? Here's a guess: These universities are prioritizing and maximizing their players' time in the classroom and the library, while providing adequate remedial support for players who arrive behind academically. And they also are keeping in touch with players' professors and tracking the students' performance. In short, they are as committed to getting their student-athletes to graduation as they are getting to the Sweet Sixteen. [Of course, there are problems with academic integrity at some schools, such as jock majors and lower standards for athletes, but they will remain hidden until we get more transparency from the NCAA.]
So the next time you're looking for an upset, think about what these teams are doing off the court. Consider who the true winner will be when these players reach the end of their basketball careers (99 percent of Division I players will not make it to the NBA). While the top-tier teams go home with trophies, prestige, and revenue, many of their players are left empty-handed.
Ben Miller contributed to this piece.