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How March Madness teams fared in academic success, graduation

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Editor's note: Richard Lapchick is a human rights activist, pioneer for racial equality, expert on sports issues, scholar and author.

From the seniors who were granted another year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic to student-athletes who were just looking for an opportunity to be in the spotlight, March offers the opportunity to show leadership, perseverance and the capability to rise to the challenge. The story of this year's women's and men's college basketball tournaments is one of uniqueness and determination.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) released a report earlier this week analyzing academic success and graduation performance of teams selected for both the men's and women's tournaments. The study identified the teams' Academic Progress Rates (APR) in addition to their Graduation Success Rates (GSR), asking the questions: "Who displays superior academic performance? Who doesn't? What do these numbers mean? What can we learn?"

As the pandemic worsened, the horrific global death toll surpassed 2.6 million people, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The impact on communities of color was a reflection of racial disparities in America. According to the CDC, Black people were hospitalized 2.9 times more than white people and COVID-19-related deaths were 1.9 times higher for Black people than white people. As the rest of society adopted safety protocols, sports also responded with new measures for staff and their teams to safely compete. On Jan. 12, NCAA president Mark Emmert used his annual state of college sports address at the virtual NCAA convention to address the impact of COVID-19 on college sports. In the face of the terrible losses, he said that this year was a great opportunity to showcase the values of the student-athletes, staff and coaches and reinforce their mission of what the NCAA is and what it stands for.

COVID-19 protocols were put in place to create a safety net to prevent the devastation and large range of emotions that fell upon most last year. To reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus, the NCAA announced that the entire championship would be played in the Indianapolis area for the men's teams and in the San Antonio area for the women's teams. While the excitement of the tournaments unfold, it is important to dive into the academic success of the teams that made it into tournament play and to compare them to the past. Because the 2020 men's and women's tournaments were canceled, all references in this report to "last year" reflected the academic and graduation performance of teams based on the 2020 tournament projections by ESPN college basketball analysts Joe Lunardi and Charlie Creme.

The women's teams continue to hold the reins for scoring higher in the APR and GSR category compared to their male counterparts. The women's teams did significantly better than the men's teams in all the categories we measure: 12 women's teams achieved a perfect APR score of 1,000 (vs. one men's team). There were 27 women's teams with a 100 percent graduation rate (vs. 11 men's teams).

For too many years there has been a disturbing gap for the graduation success rate between Black and white basketball student athletes. While the gap persists, this year we saw a slight decrease in the women's and the men's GSR gap for Black and white basketball student-athletes.

The overall Graduation Success Rate (GSR) for women's tournament teams increased slightly, from 93% in 2020 to 93.1% in 2021. The men's tournament teams' overall GSR was 82.4%, decreasing from 82.8% in 2020.

In 2004, the NCAA introduced the APR as part of an academic reform package intended to more accurately measure student-athletes' academic success and improve graduation rates. The APR holds teams accountable for student-athletes' success in the classroom by tracking their eligibility (academically) and retention (whether an athlete transferred, tried to turn pro, or dropped out altogether). Teams are penalized if they fall below an APR score of 930, which has an expected graduation rate of 50 percent of its student-athletes.

There was an important milestone achieved by both the men's and women's teams last year. It was the first year that all the teams projected to participate in the tournament graduated at least 50 percent of their basketball student-athletes. This continued into the 2021 season. In fact, 91.2% of the men's teams and 96.9% of the women's teams had an APR score of 950 or more.

From my vantage point, the main area of concern each year has been the disparity in the GSRs of Black and white male and female basketball student-athletes. For the men, the gap decreased from 14.3% to 13.5% in 2021.The gap between white and Black female student-athletes in 2021 is at 6.1% which was a decrease from 6.3% in 2020.

In the past we have seen the gap continuously widen, but after countless efforts we see the gap of GSR between Black and white student-athletes starting to close. It is important to take into account the unique circumstances in this past year, as that has played a part in the decisions some players have made to transfer or be done with school early as a whole. However, in the academic community, it is critical that we keep making efforts to eliminate the graduation rate gaps of Black male and female basketball student-athletes and reiterate that academics should be at the forefront in the men's game.

Another way to motivate student-athletes and make their experiences in college great is to have more women coaching women's teams and more people of color coaching both men's and women's teams. It is clear that having women and coaches of color as head coaches has an impact on student-athletes. It is vital for our athletic directors and university presidents to take note of this when making hiring decisions.

The NCAA uses the school's APR and GSR metrics to attempt to motivate member schools to meet the set academic standards. The revised NCAA APR standards took effect in 2016 and now require schools to maintain a four-year average APR of 930. If schools fail to meet the minimum APR requirement, the NCAA will levy sanctions against that university that consist of progressive penalties including loss of scholarships, postseason competition and reduced practice hours.

We need to raise the minimum APR to the equivalent of a 60 percent graduation rate standard. If we had raised the bar to an equivalent of a 60 percent graduation rate this year, 100 percent of the women's tournament teams and 93 percent of the men's tournament teams would have met this mark. The same was true in 2020. 

Athletes by nature go for their best performance. If we raise the academic bar, our student-athletes will go for it. And reach it.

College sports is doing much better than higher education in general when it comes to the graduation rate gap between Black and white students. To see that, we can look at the general student population using the FED (Federal) Graduation Rates, which is calculated in a different way. Black men who are not student-athletes graduate at a 55* percent rate, while African-American women who are not student-athletes graduate at a rate of 62* percent. This compares to Black male basketball student-athletes at 79 percent and Black female basketball student-athletes at 93 percent. (*2017 Data collected per The Education Trust averages were taken from non-student athlete graduation rates at universities included in 2020 Division I postseason tournament.)

The student-athletes who did not get a chance to compete last season have the opportunity now to put all the pain they felt last season onto that basketball court. They will be able to display all the hard work and dedication they have put in from this past year. The tournaments this year are truly going to be ones you do not want to miss.

Taylor Middleton made significant contributions to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is 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.