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What does college do for athletes?

Not too long ago, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke thoughtfully about how basketball and academics can best intertwine. Duncan spoke, essentially, for better education for those athletes in college, while also allowing that those few players ready for the NBA out of high school ought to be allowed to go.

Today, on the eve of the NCAA tournament, Secretary Duncan is speaking on the topic once again, this time reacting to new research from Richard Lapchick on graduation rates. From a transcript of his remarks, as prepared:

The good news is that graduation rates of basketball players overall are rising, and that basketball players still have a slight edge over non-athletes when it comes to finishing college. The reforms that Myles Brand instituted as the head of the NCAA have put an end to the days where basketball programs could go years on end without graduating a single African-American basketball player.

We also know that playing college basketball doesn’t have to be a ticket to dropping out. Look at the record of women players. Black and white female ballplayers have very high graduation rates—nearly 80 percent of black female players on NCAA tournament teams graduate, as do 90 percent of white female ballplayers.

But there are troubling findings in Richard’s analysis about programs where priorities have been askew. One out of five men’s teams in the NCAA tournament has graduated less than 40 percent of their players in recent years. If you can’t manage to graduate two out of five players, how serious are the institution and the coach about their players’ academic success? How are you preparing student athletes for life?

The graduation rates of African-American ballplayers on some men’s teams are shockingly low. Five men’s teams graduate 20 percent or less of their African-American players. Two teams, Maryland and California have, six years later, graduated zero percent of their black ballplayers who entered from 1999 through 2002.

It can be a challenge to raise graduation rates for players who come from high-poverty high schools and families where no one has attended college. But that’s not an adequate excuse. You can’t just round up the usual suspects to explain away the poor record of some programs.

Recall that Richard Lapchick’s studies use the NCAA Graduation Success metric, which does not penalize a school for players who transfer or go to the NBA, as long as they are in good academic standing. Low graduation rates aren’t one-year flukes either. The NCAA graduation rates are based on four years of graduation rates for entering classes.

Even more telling is the enormous variation from one men’s program to the next. Seven men’s teams in this year’s tournament graduate 100 percent of their players, black and white. By contrast, nine teams have a discrepancy of 60 percentage points or more in graduation rates between their white and black players.

You cannot tell me that discrepancies that large are unrelated to a program’s practices and an institution’s priorities. It doesn’t take an elite university like a Duke, Georgetown, or Notre Dame to have a high graduation rate. Ohio, Oakland, Oklahoma State, Siena, and Xavier all graduate more than 80 percent of their men’s players.

We need more athletic administrators like Sister Rose Ann Fleming at Xavier. Sister Fleming is a 77-year old academic advisor who goes knocking on player’s doors to make sure they are keeping up with their assignments. Since she became the academic advisor at Xavier in 1985, every men’s basketball player who played as a senior has left with a diploma.

We need more coaches like Eddie Robinson, the legendary football coach at Grambling, who used to walk through the dorm banging a cowbell before dawn to get his players up and out to class. Eighty percent of Eddie Robinson’s players graduated.

In 2001, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics proposed that teams should be ineligible for post-season play if they failed to graduate at least 50 percent of their athletes.

Since then, colleges have made progress in boosting graduation rates--but it’s not nearly enough.

I want to reiterate my proposal to the NCAA that teams that fail to graduate 40 percent of their players should be ineligible for post-season competition. It’s a low bar, frankly, and not many teams would be ineligible. Over time, we should set a higher bar. But it’s a minimum, a bright line, which every program should meet to vie for post-season honors.

In this year’s NCAA tournament, 12 men’s teams have graduation rates below 40 percent, as do three women’s teams. Not a single team out of the 68 FBS football teams that played in bowl games this past year had a graduation rate below 40 percent. Institute a minimum of a 40 percent graduation rate for post-season play and I predict you will see men’s basketball teams suddenly improve their academic outcomes.