Editor's note: Richard Lapchick is a human rights activist, pioneer for racial equality, expert on sports issues, scholar and author.
We are now at the peak of the college basketball season and days away from the always enthralling finish to the men's and women's Final Fours. With now commonplace upsets leaving six of the eight No. 1 seeds on the men's and women's sides at home, brackets are long since smashed. But each year, I choose to reflect on the promises of our colleges and universities to give a meaningful education to the student-athletes representing the schools.
Today, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida (UCF) released its annual study, "Keeping Score When It Counts: Academic Progress/Graduation Success Rate Study of the 2023 NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Basketball Tournament Teams." This study provides a comprehensive analysis of the academic performance of student-athletes on teams selected for the 2023 NCAA Division I men's and women's basketball tournaments. The study examined the Graduation Success Rates (GSR) and Academic Progress Rates (APR) as reported by the NCAA for the men's and women's tournament teams. This study also compared the graduation rate data of white and Black male and female basketball student-athletes.
First of all, the women in the classroom outscore the men by a wide margin. The 2023 report shows that women graduated at an average rate of 93.8%. There were no women's teams this year that fell below the 930 APR benchmark. White female student-athletes graduated at a rate of 6.3 percentage points higher than Black female student-athletes (97.4% compared to 91.1%).
No institutions had a women's team with a GSR below 60% in 2023, with 64% being the lowest.
Danette Leighton, CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation, said it is not surprising to see such high graduation rates among women student-athletes at colleges and universities across the country.
"Our research consistently shows the power of sport to provide life-changing benefits, including higher academic aspirations, expectations, and achievements," Leighton said. "These findings underscore the vital need for continued protection and progression of Title IX to expand access and opportunities for all girls and women on the field of play. That expansion helps open a wide pathway to excel and thrive, in both sport and future careers."
The men graduated at an average rate of 84.9%, decreasing 2.3 percentage points from last year. There were no men's teams this year that fell below the 930 APR benchmark. The gap between the graduation rate for white (95.4%) and Black male student-athletes (81.4%) widened this year, growing from an already alarming 11.4% in 2022 to 14%.
Annually reported, the gap between the graduation rates for white and Black student-athletes, especially among the men's teams, is the most troubling statistic in the report.
In 2023, 64 of the 68 women's teams graduated at least 80% of their basketball student-athletes. Last year, 65 of the 68 women's teams graduated at least 80% of their basketball student athletes.
It was totally unacceptable that 11 men's teams (16.2%) had a 30.0 percentage point or greater gap between the graduation rates of their white and Black basketball student-athletes. On the women's side, four teams had a 30 percentage point or greater gap between the graduation rates of white and Black basketball student-athletes. This was consistent with last year's report.
"Part of the ethos of the United States has been that education is the great equalizer," said Jeff O'Brien, CEO of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. "And we know the impact a college degree has on a host of life success factors including: salary/wealth, health & wellness, social mobility, housing, etc. The value of a college education cannot be understated.
"Viewing this through an 'education is opportunity' lens, the data in the NCAA tournament report card seem clear on two fronts: Basketball programs have made progress on metrics that impact student-athlete eligibility, and the men's programs' graduation racial gap should be considered unacceptable by anyone involved in the enterprise.
"Let's call on leaders of these programs to step beyond a focus on eligibility, which can appear self-serving, and zero-in on degree-completing strategies so that every student-athlete completes their degree, even if they leave school early for a professional sport opportunity. The data are clear on what a college degree does to the trajectory of a graduates' life, and that's where our focus should be."
Based on graduation success rate data, additional highlights from the study include the following:
• On the women's side, 94.7% of the tournament teams graduated 70% or more of their white basketball student-athletes, while 95.4% graduated 70% or more of their Black basketball student-athletes. This resulted in a 0.7 percentage point gap in favor of the Black student-athletes.
• On the men's side, 93.8% of the tournament teams graduated 70% or more of their white basketball student-athletes, while only 82.4% graduated 70% or more of their Black basketball student-athletes, resulting in an 11.4 percentage point gap among the men's teams in favor of the white student-athletes.
• On the women's side, 91.2% of white basketball student-athletes and 92.3% of Black basketball student-athletes graduated at least 60% or more of both their white and Black basketball student-athletes. The result was a 1.1 percent gap again in favor of the Black student-athletes.
• On the men's side, 96.2% of the teams graduated 60% or more of their white basketball student-athletes, while 89.7% graduated 60% or more of their Black basketball student-athletes. This resulted in a 6.5 percentage point gap in favor of the white student-athletes.
"For many years I have shared my desire to avoid the trap of having March Madness in the NCAA tournament, and then have 'May Sadness' because players don't graduate from college or are not prepared for a successful future," the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, told me.
"We all can celebrate the students' achievements on the court, but we must also cheer for them as they pursue their degrees. After all, they are student-athletes, and most of them -- even as gifted as they are athletically -- will not have the opportunity to play sports at the professional level. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to prepare them on to win in the classroom today and, in the future, careers tomorrow!"
Jackson said Joseph Bryant has led the Rainbow PUSH Coalition's efforts to implement a "Life Beyond the Playing Field" career mentoring program at numerous college and professional events, including the NBA All-Star Weekend, the HBCU All-Star Game and the NCAA Final Four. Working with leagues and educational institutions, the program seeks to provide students with resources for academic support, career training and readiness, internships, mentorships, and access to opportunities to improve and enhance their overall goals.
Jackson said the academic progress report "challenges us to collectively think through, strategize and implement the tools needed to help improve graduation rates, and hence producing winners both on and off the court who are ready to be champions in life after sports."
Of those schools that made it to the Sweet 16, two teams -- Texas (Rodney Terry) and Kansas State (Jerome Tang) -- had Black head coaches among the men's teams. Four teams -- Mississippi (Yolett McPhee-McCuin), Notre Dame (Niele Ivey), Virginia Tech (Kenny Brooks), and South Carolina (Dawn Staley) -- had Black head coaches among the women's teams. The graduation rates for the Black head coaches among the men's teams was 100% for both teams for their white student-athletes and 71.0% and 63.0% for their Black student-athletes. The graduate rates for the Black head coaches among the women's teams was 100% for all teams for their white student-athletes and 71.0%, 90.0% 100% and 100% for their Black student-athletes.
Of those schools that made it to the Elite Eight, two teams -- Texas and Kansas State -- had Black head coaches among the men's teams. Two teams -- Virginia Tech and South Carolina -- had Black head coaches among the women's teams. The graduation rates for the Black head coaches among the men's teams was 100% for both teams for their white student-athletes and 71.0% and 63.0% for their Black student-athletes. The graduate rates for the Black head coaches among the women's teams was 100% for both teams for their white student-athletes and 90% and 100% for their Black student-athletes.
Of those schools that made it to the Final Four, there were no teams with Black head coaches among the men's teams. The graduation rates for the Black head coaches among the women's teams -- Virginia Tech and South Carolina --was 100% for their white student-athletes and 90% and 100% for their Black student-athletes.
Among the good news in the study: There were 35 women's teams and 19 men's teams that achieved 100% graduation success rates. Four teams -- Gonzaga, Princeton, Vermont, and USC -- achieved a 100% graduation rate for both the men's and women's tournament. Nine teams within the women's field and five in the men's field achieved a perfect APR score of 1000.
UCLA and the Louisiana-Lafayette were the only men's teams with a GSR below 60%. Last year, one institution fell below this mark.
This year, no men's or women's team fell below the 930 mark. Academic reforms within collegiate athletics have helped to create positive change. We must now improve our expectations and move toward increasing the GSR standard to 60%. Currently, 100% of the women's teams and 97.1% of men's teams are above this standard. We need to raise the bar at least this high.
"We have made progress, but our student-athletes will do even better if we raise the academic bar," said Arne Duncan, former U.S. Secretary of Education and current co-chair of the Knight Commission. "We should set the APR score bar to the equivalent of a 60% graduation rate. ... Almost all the teams in the tournament are already there. We need to take the next step."
So let's raise our expectations. Give student-athletes the credit for what they can do in the classroom and give them the resources they need to fully meet both their athletic and intellectual potential. This year we concluded the 2023 study with our own Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four by highlighting schools that are fully putting an emphasis on education on and off the court.
The Final Four in our men's bracket were Arizona State, Furman, Vermont and Alabama. They ranked the highest with GSRs of 100 and APRs of 1,000.
In our women's bracket, we were unable to proceed past the Elite Eight because the top eight schools -- Holy Cross, Creighton, Drake, Gonzaga, Sacred Heart, South Dakota State, Louisville and Michigan -- each had GSRs of 100 and APRs of 1,000.
Congratulations to all of these schools for the academic achievements of their student-athletes. And, of course, congratulations and good luck to the eight teams that will be fighting for the national championship.
Richard E. Lapchick is the director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card and is the President of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.