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A Matter of Degrees
Alexander Wolff
April 07, 2003
Woeful graduation rates bolster an NCAA initiative on academics
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April 07, 2003

A Matter Of Degrees

Woeful graduation rates bolster an NCAA initiative on academics

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In men's college basketball, graduation rates are controversial, and not just because they tend to be so low. Some critics of the NCAA's method of measuring the academic progress of athletes over a six-year period contend that the figures can be downright misleading. Small sample sizes and other vagaries, like the extent to which a program uses junior college players (who don't count in the calculations) or produces pros (who do count, even if they leave school early to become millionaires), can in fact skew the results. Still, the NCAA's latest reports show that exactly none of the four No. 1 seeds in the current tournament-Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Texas—graduated a single player who arrived as a freshman in the fall of 1995.

Depressing? Maybe not Those abysmal figures can be a useful tool for new NCAA president Myles Brand as he tries to enact revolutionary reforms over the next year. Brand intends to push for rules that would cost schools scholarships or postseason eligibility if their athletes underperform in the classroom, either by failing to make progress toward a degree or not getting one. An NCAA committee is weighing another possibility—tying a school's share of tournament revenue to its graduation rate. That no doubt would do an even better job of getting the attention of athletic directors and deans alike.

The reformers won't have it easy. The college basketball establishment has long scoffed at the idea of considering nonhoops criteria when choosing or seeding teams for March Madness. "I don't think Myles Brand knows anything about basketball," groused Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun in The New York Times a couple weeks ago, in a foretaste of how the proposals are likely to be received. Calhoun rightly points out that many school presidents have stumbled on this issue: Fired St. Bonaventure president Robert Wickenheiser was implicated in the academic fraud that led the Bonnies to abandon their season, and presidents still ensconced at Fresno State and Georgia are professing shock—shock!—that the disreputable coaches they hired, Jerry Tarkanian and Jim Harrick, brought shame to those schools.

Yet Brand doesn't have to know a thing about basketball for his proposal to merit serious consideration. It is no less a basketball mind than Bob Knight—the coach Brand famously fired when both were at Indiana—who is credited with being the first to champion the idea of linking scholarships to graduation rates. Calhoun (whose Huskies have a 50% graduation rate) need look no further than his own team for evidence that the NCAA's modest targets are reachable. If UConn's star center Emeka Okafor can have a 3.7 grade-point average and be on track to graduate in three years, as he does and is, it's hardly outrageous to hold accountable those schools whose players can't get a degree in six.