News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

March 20, 2010

Mark Bennett: U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan and others want teams not graduating players sitting at home during Big Dance


No college graduating only 8 percent of its men’s basketball players should be playing in the NCAA Tournament.

Yet Maryland did just that, filling the No. 4 seed in the Midwest Regional.

Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, thinks schools graduating less than 40 percent of their players shouldn’t be allowed in the Big Dance, either. Duncan repeated that opinion, which he’s stated before, on Wednesday — the eve of March Madness — in the nation’s capital.

If his idea were a reality, 12 of the 65 teams in this year’s field would be ineligible. (Of course, Duncan doesn’t have the authority to impose such sanctions; only the NCAA can do that.)

Coaches from some of the dozen schools complained and rationalized. Some of their players left school for NBA careers, and are now millionaires, they insisted. Some of those millionaires intend to come back and finish their degrees, they said. And those graduation rates involve players who started college from 1999 to 2002, they asserted. Ancient history, they cried.

How could America’s top educator — a former college basketball player, no less — be so unfair?

Really, those irate coaches are right. It was unfair of Duncan … not to go even further.

Forty-percent is a “low bar.” It’s a good idea, and a little more strict than the NCAA’s own recently imposed tiered system of academic performance standards.

But a university’s basketball team should not be an anomaly to the school as a whole. A 40-percent graduation rate should be the first minimum requirement. Step 2 should mandate that graduation rates for the men’s basketball (and other athletic squads) be within 10 percentage points of that college’s overall student graduation rate.

Some of those 12 universities called out by Duncan are much closer to the 40-percent mark than to their own school’s graduation rate for all students.

First, understand that the statistics — culled from the NCAA Graduation Success Rates by researchers at the Institute for Diversity and Ethics at the University of Central Florida — were fine-tuned five years ago to avoid unfairly penalizing schools. Thus, players who transfer to other colleges or leave early for pro careers don’t hurt the original schools’ GSR. Also, the rates allow a six-year window for players to graduate. That’s why the numbers seem so “ancient” — they go back at least six years.

Even with those allowances, Maryland — the 2002 national champion — graduated just 8 percent of its players who entered the school between 1999 and 2002.

That’s bad. The Terps are 32 percentage points below the threshold recommended by Duncan.

But Maryland’s 8-percent mark is even more shocking when compared to that university’s overall graduation rate. Eighty-two percent of UM students graduated within six years, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Education statistics compiled by Complete College America in Washington, D.C.

It’s incredibly naive to harbor the nostalgic notion that a college basketball team is representative of its campus. But that 74-percent gap between the average UM student and the Terrapins basketball team is pretty darn wide.

Things aren’t much different at California-Berkeley. Ninety percent of all Cal students graduated within six years, according to those Complete College stats. But just 20 percent of the Bears men’s basketball players finished their degrees in that same span.

Using that perspective, it’s less surprising to learn that 29 percent of players at Arkansas-Pine Bluff graduated. That’s because just 28 percent of Pine Bluff students overall completed their schooling. A few of the other low-performing NCAA schools also came close to reflecting their average student body. New Mexico State’s team rate was 36 percent, while the school’s hit 43 percent. Louisville stood at 38 percent for players, and 46 percent overall.

But most of the low 12 revealed wide differences between their team and the students overall — Baylor (36 percent for the team and 73 for the student body), Clemson (37 and 79), Georgia Tech (38 and 77), Kentucky (31 and 58), Missouri (36 and 69), Tennessee (30 and 60) and Washington (29 and 77).

In the big picture of American higher education, the concept of banning a few basketball teams from the NCAA Tournament because of weak academics is inconsequential. But college life’s most visible national moment — like it or not — comes during these three weeks. CBS peppers its broadcasts with slickly produced commercials about the participating colleges and poignant tales of players’ and coaches’ adversities.

The image typical Americans hold of the University of Kentucky, or Nevada-Las Vegas, or Baylor, or St. Mary’s is formed in this “one shining moment.” The NCAA Tournament thrives on the perception that players are amateurs, with all but a rare, gifted few destined to use their degrees as teachers, chemists, architects, social workers and business managers. It’s a unique, wonderful, Americana experience that professional sports can’t equal.

But NCAA basketball also obviously involves big-time money. CBS has a 13-year, $6-billion — that’s billion, with a b — contract with the NCAA. No doubt, the pursuit of a share of that TV money drives some schools to set separate expectations for their men’s basketball players and their average students.

The standards pitched by Secretary Duncan — combined with a demand for graduation rates similar to a school’s overall student body — would bring our mental picture of March Madness closer to reality.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or

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    March 12, 2010