Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, won’t win any popularity contests with a lot of college sports denizens. However, he offered something well worth thinking about when he said this week that college basketball teams that don’t graduate at least 40 percent of their players should be banned from post-season play, such as the NCAA and NIT tournaments now in progress.
He adds, quite correctly, that a 40 percent graduation rate is a “low bar.” He asked: If a school can’t graduate two out of five student-athletes, how serious is it about its academic mission?
The answer would seem to be “not very.”
Duncan notes that under his plan, about a dozen of the 65 teams taking part in the 2010 NCAA men’s basketball tournament would be on the outside looking in. That includes Kentucky, one of the four No. 1 seeds, which has a graduate rate of 31 percent. Kansas University is up near 75 percent.
We might be accused of rubbing it in on a potential opponent but it is better to deal through strength than through weakness, and the academic picture is a genuine strength of the current KU team.
Coach Bill Self’s Jayhawks, KU emphasizes with justifiable pride, have the top Academic Progress Rate scores of any of the teams in the tournament. Even if they don’t win the title, they already have a highly significant achievement on their glowing resume.
The APR is a figure used by the NCAA to determine academic performance and includes such factors as eligibility, retention and graduation. It provides a semester-by-semester view of the academic progress of each student-athlete.
KU clearly puts emphasis on the “student” part of that term. That has not been the approach of a number of high-profile sports schools which have well-known reputations for keeping athletes eligible as long as possible, getting the maximum performance from them, then casting them onto an academic bone pile to fend for themselves. That policy has produced many a sad story over the years. It will have new victims as we move along.
Jim Marchiony of the KU athletic staff makes some notable points. “First of all, you have to have kids who want to do well,” he said. “You also have to have coaches who want to help the kids do well. And you have to have a faculty made up of outstanding teachers and flexible teachers who can accommodate the travel demands of the athletes.”
KU is by no means perfect in its efforts to push athletic young people along the route of “students,” but its APR shows that the school is now solidly on the right track. The fine record of KU in basketball over the years indicates Jayhawk officials are doing an excellent job making the term “student-athlete” have the kind of balance it should. Other sports programs at KU are showing similar academic success.
It is not likely that Duncan will sway many scholastically lax universities to revamp their academic programs, but he makes an important point. When fewer than two out of five student athletes are making adequate academic progress, it’s little wonder so many observers wonder about the priorities of college athletic factories that win championships but fail to graduate students.