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NCAA graduation rates

Grad rates for women’s teams in NCAA tournament are exceptional

Men’s programs are getting better, but black-white gaps persist

As you cheer for your favorite team during March Madness, roar for the entire women’s field as it dribbles deftly up the floor and prances proudly across the stage at commencement. Whatever remains of the so-called “student-athlete” model in big-time college sports is hugely due to them. So exemplary are their graduation rates, they represent one of the best examples of near racial equality in American education.

In my 23rd year of charting graduation rates of football bowl teams and basketball tournament teams, formerly for The Boston Globe and now for The Undefeated, women basketball players had one of their best years, with a 92 percent Graduation Success Rate (GSR) for the 64-team field. Excellence was across the board, as African-American and white players graduated at respective rates of 88 percent and 96 percent.

There were 31 teams with a perfect 100 percent graduation rate for black women. The roll call of perfection comprises Maine, UConn, DePaul, Radford, Rice, Quinnipiac, Buffalo, Belmont, Stanford, Bucknell, Abilene Christian, BYU, Missouri, Drake, South Dakota, Central Florida, Marquette, Texas A&M, Michigan, Kansas State, Gonzaga, UCLA, Maryland, Rutgers, South Carolina, Kentucky, Florida Gulf Coast, Portland State, Mercer, Florida State and Iowa State.

That does not yet compare with the total of 49 schools in the tournament that have 100 percent rates for white women players. In the world of small quibbles, if graduation rates were put in terms of traditional numerical academic grades, white women would be a solid A while black women would be a B-plus. Close, but more improvement must still be had before full equality can be declared.

But it remains a major victory that 49 of the 61 schools (four out of five) that have data for black women have a graduation rate of 80 percent or higher, including all four top women’s seeds: Baylor, Mississippi State, Notre Dame and Louisville. As good as women’s rates have always been, their programs clearly keep pushing for even better academic performance. A decade ago in my 2009 report, the overall women’s GSR was 84 percent, with black women averaging 78 percent. Back then, the number of schools with 100 percent GSRs for black women was 18 instead of this year’s 31.

At the pinnacle of all this is 11-time national champion Connecticut. Despite the fact that UConn’s women proved vulnerable on the court, securing only a No. 2 seed this year, the Huskies remain invulnerable in the classroom. They posted a 100 percent team graduation rate for the fifth straight year. It was the 13th straight season of graduation rates of 90 percent or higher. The women have achieved this level of academic achievement despite now playing the same number of games as men. Most women’s teams in the tournament played between 31 and 33 games, while most men’s teams played between 32 and 34.

Men’s teams improve, but more work needed

The men’s teams offer a different picture, checkered to the degree that it makes me reach back to 1787 and the United States Constitutional Convention’s horrid “three-fifths compromise.” That agreement allowed slave states to fractionally count chattel to disproportionately boost representation in Congress.

There are modern versions of the three-fifths compromise infecting the men’s version of March Madness.

While 59 of the 64 women’s teams (92 percent) had overall graduation rates of at least 80 percent, the men managed to get just 40 of 68 teams (three-fifths) to that mark. Of the 55 women’s teams where black and white graduation rates could be compared, only 10 had white rates at least 20 percentage points higher than for black players.

Twenty-eight men’s teams, nearly three times more teams than women, had such gaps.

That signals the continuing exploitation of black male players. To be clear, public pressure (along with the occasional embarrassing scandal) has forced many schools to devote legitimate time and resources into educating them. For years, my guiding principle has been that teams with graduation rates under 50 percent should be banned from postseason play, a sanction recommended nearly two decades ago by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and slowly adopted by the NCAA.

Additionally, I’ve long advocated that teams that may have overall graduation rates of at least 50 percent should still be banned if their black rate is under 50 percent. Many programs have historically hit 50 percent by obscuring the appalling grad rates for black players with astronomical rates for white players. The NCAA thus far has refused to consider racial disparities in its criteria for sanctions.

Because of scrutiny and scandal, we have come a good distance away from my 2010 report, in which Kentucky, Maryland, Texas, UNLV and Cal had GSRs for black male players ranging from 0 to 22 percent, and my 2009 report, where five teams posted a 0 graduation rate and nearly half the field was under 50 percent for black men. This year, there was only one team, Abilene Christian, with a black GSR under 50 percent in the 68-team field and only two, Abilene Christian and Oregon, with overall graduation rates under 50 percent.

In significant good news, there were a record number of teams, 33, with black GSRs of at least 80 percent. That included 20 teams at 100 percent, including top seeds Virginia, Duke and Gonzaga. No. 2 seeds Michigan, Michigan State and Tennessee also had black graduation rates of 100 percent. In many prior years, all three of those latter schools were top offenders. In my 2011 report, their black GSRs ranged from 33 percent to 38 percent.

By the way, many fans and alumni constantly ask me if these rates account for players who go pro before their senior year. They do. The NCAA designed the GSR to positively count transfers who graduate within six years while not penalizing programs for players who leave early, as long as they were in good academic standing.

However, in the more shadowy corners of the NCAA, the three-fifths compromise lurks.

Of the 55 teams that recorded data for white players, 43 had a perfect 100 percent GSR, more than double the number of teams with perfect marks for black players, and close to the level of perfection for white women players.

The biggest gap was Abilene Christian’s 46 percentage points: 29 percent for black players and 75 percent for white players. Other schools where the white GSR was at least 33 percentage points higher than the black GSR were North Carolina, Auburn, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Northern Kentucky, Buffalo, Central Florida, Minnesota, Texas Tech, Syracuse and Mississippi State.

Only five of 55 schools reporting data for white players had graduation rates under 70 percent, and 23 of the 68 teams had black graduation rates under 70 percent, obviously graduating only two-thirds, three-fifths or one-half of their players.

While the men play on in echoes of 1787, the women play as if the Equal Rights Amendment, never actually adopted by Congress, is in full force.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Pulitzer finalist, 10-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists and a 2018 winner from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists for his work for The Undefeated. He co-authored Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock.