Archive for Sunday, May 2, 2004

Commentary: Graduation rates matter now

May 2, 2004

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There's no point spread on college graduation rates. Nobody talks about them at cocktail parties or water coolers. Few people know or care what they are.

That all may change.

Now graduation rates matter, figuring into the number of scholarships that schools can offer and whether the schools should be barred from postseason play and money.

NCAA president Myles Brand declared the reforms enacted a few days ago "the beginning of a sea change in college sports."

Maybe.

Or maybe they're no more than new ripples in college sports' big puddle.

The NCAA plan, for all its flaws, loopholes and omissions, appears to be an earnest effort to push schools back toward their basic business: education.

One way is by improving on the woeful graduation rates of athletes. For the first time, low rates could cost schools scholarships, bowl games and appearances in the Final Four.

Maybe a few more athletes, or maybe thousands more, will graduate with degrees as a result of this move to monitor their academic progress.

"The concept is really important," said Richard Lapchick, head of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. "Up until this point in the history of college sports, schools never faced sanctions for not graduating players."

The fact that about one out of five Division One schools hasn't graduated a single basketball player in a six-year period of time, Lapchick said, "tells us this has been a pretty pervasive problem."

Lapchick and college sports gadfly Murray Sperber of Indiana both believe that Brand sees the reforms as significant. But Sperber, author of "Beer and Circus: How big-time college sports is crippling undergraduate education," has doubts about how effective the reforms will be.

"Of course I'm skeptical," said Sperber, who jousted with Brand and Bob Knight when they were at Indiana. "If you look at the details, they're a lot less sweeping and reform-like."

Sperber objects to the NCAA's abandonment of the federal government's figures for graduation rates over a six-year period. Schools will have a narrower pool to count for graduation, since athletes who leave school in good academic standing will not be counted against the graduation rates.

"That sounds OK, but leaving in good academic standing from IU and many schools if you're a freshman, that's a D-plus," Sperber said. "If you're a sophomore or above, that's a C-minus. You'd have to never go to class to get a C-minus."

That's only one of the criteria the NCAA will use. More important is a measurement of progress in passing the requirements of a major. Athletes also will have to take more core courses.

Significant reform could have been achieved faster and more dramatically, he said, by going back in time -- ending freshman eligibility and guaranteeing four-year scholarships.

Freshmen -- athletes or not -- need time to adjust to college, particularly academically. And the scholarships, as they're set up now, are essentially one-year contracts renewed at the behest of the coach, mostly for athletic reasons.

The NCAA missed an opportunity to do more in its reforms. The question now is whether it did enough to change a culture that has gotten out of control.

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