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Graduation Gap Between NCAA Black and White Student-Athletes

Courtney Bowie,
Racial Justice Program
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March 30, 2011

According to my bracket, next weekend, the University of Texas and the University of North Carolina will battle for a national basketball title. In reality, Butler, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), University of Kentucky, and University of Connecticut will battle it out for first place in National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I basketball.

Regardless of who comes away with the championship title, when it comes to graduation rates for black players, all of these colleges are coming up short.

According to a recent study at the University of Central Florida’s (UCF) Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, there is “a staggering gap between the graduation rates of African-American and white student-athletes.” The gap between white and black basketball players stands at 32 percent overall. For instance, at Kentucky, only 31 percent of the African-American basketball players graduate compared to 100 percent of the white players. At 25 percent, University of Connecticut’s graduation rate for black players is abysmal. Again, 100 percent of their white basketball players graduate. Butler does the best in terms of the gap, with half of its black student basketball players graduating versus all of their white student athletes. VCU has a 64 percent graduation rate for black basketball players and no white players.

The report also demonstrates the efforts of UCF to address such disparity. The NCAA put an Academic Progress Rate (APR) in place that causes colleges to lose scholarships if their graduation rate is too low. Schools that score below 925 — equal to a 50 percent graduation rate — can lose up to 10 percent of their scholarships. The UCF institute’s director, Richard Lapchick, wants that threshold increased to 60 percent. This would have a great impact on many of the 61 percent of Division I basketball players who are black.

While this is a serious issue at the collegiate level, it reflects the increasing gap in educational opportunity for black students in elementary and high school. On average, on all assessments, white students do better than black students. The Department of Education’s report demonstrates there is a significant achievement gap between black and white public school student performance on standardized tests, which begins in elementary school and persists through high school. For poor students, performance results are even worse. Therefore, the graduation gap at NCAA Division I colleges is not surprising.

Some have suggested black parents and students make better choices when choosing schools. This is a great idea if the student is in a position to complete the college-level work. However, the reality is, a lot of black student-athletes started out as the invisible men (or boys) in their public schools. It is only until a select few demonstrate their athletic talent that they become visible and sought after by Division I universities.

Many of the public schools that send basketball players to powerhouse colleges do not have organized sports until high school. At that time, if the student is academically behind or has poor reading skills, it is unlikely he or she will catch up. The students who do not have athletic talent are not being admitted to those universities. They are left where they are: undereducated and ill-equipped to make a living.

Given the money that elite university basketball programs generate for a school, these schools should demonstrate a willingness to help students make the grade academically. Their investment in additional one-to-one tutoring and remedial help for student-athletes who are unprepared is a no-brainer. The students or their parents must demand it.

Another solution would be for this country to take a collective interest in the public education of all children, regardless of race or athletic ability, so that if a student reaches college his only obstacle to graduation will be himself. This approach is far more likely to produce results.

With more parity in college basketball, demonstrated by the inspirational presence of Butler and Virginia Commonwealth in the Final Four this weekend, it would be uplifting to learn that colleges are closing the gap in their graduation rates and the students we see excelling on the court are getting diplomas.

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