Race, Class, and Graduation Rates

There are a couple of stories in Inside Higher Ed today talking about college graduation rates. One is a passing mention that the NCAA has released complete graduation rate data for Division I schools through its impressively awful web site (the statistics are available as a series of one-page PDF files, one for each institution, which you can select from a set of 26 pull-down menus, one from each letter...). They also have sport-by-sport data, though these files are so full of gaps and omissions as to be essentially useless.

The other article is a longer piece about lagging graduation rates for students from disadvantaged backgrounds:

The inexorable rush to rankings glory, which tends to reward colleges and universities the more academically selective and wealthy they become, has not been good for low-income and minority students. By now the statistics are pretty well known: About half of Americans from low-income backgrounds go on to attend college, compared to about two-thirds of middle income Americans and 80 percent of those with large incomes. Barely two in five black and Hispanic freshmen earn a bachelor's degree within six years of entering college, compared to about 60 percent of white freshmen and 64 percent of Asian Americans. And white Americans are twice as likely as black Americans and three times as likely as Hispanic Americans to have earned a bachelor's degree by the age of 29.

These two together make a valuable point that's often missed in the operatic hand-wringing about the failures and abuses of college athletics: when you're talking about graduation rates, it's important to compare apples to apples.

Once you get past their irritating data presentation, the NCAA files are pretty useful. They present graduation rates for the entering class of 2000-01 and a four-class average graduation rate for both athletes and non-athletes, broken down by racial and ethnic groups. I pulled a half-dozen of these: the two schools I root for (Syracuse, Maryland), two schools that are annoyingly smug about the academic performance of their athletes (Duke, Stanford), and two other big universities in the South (North Carolina, LSU). If you look at the data, there's a pretty clear pattern.

The standard technique of "College Sports Are Evil" articles is to look at the absolute graduation rate for the two big revenue sports (football and men's basketball), and make regretful noises about how low the graduation rate for athletes is. A slightly more sophisticated analysis will compare the rate for those two sports to the overall rate for the school.

This is the wrong comparison, though, for demographic reasons. The students making up the revenue-sport teams tend to be predominantly black, and comparing them to the overall student population or even some imaginary absolute standard is making an elementary mistake.

If you look at the numbers for Maryland, for example, the overall graduation rate for all students is about 75% (I'll compare only four-class average numbers here), while the graduation rate for black male athletes is only 52%. That looks pretty damning, but the proper comparison isn't between the subset of black male athletes and all students at the university (three-fifths of whom are white), but between black male athletes and black male non-athletes, who graduate at a rate of only 54%.

This pattern repeats through all the schools I looked at: Duke has 93% overall, 78% for black male athletes, and 83% for black male non-athletes; Syracuse 80/47/64; Stanford 95/87/86; UNC 83/56/63; LSU 56/36/42. Other than Syracuse, which is doing a rotten job, the male athletes graduate at rates that are not too far below those of their non-athletic classmates. (The same basic pattern holds for white male athletes, who graduate at rates very slightly lower than their non-athlete classmates, except at North Carolina where there's an 66/83 disparity. What's up with the Tar Heels?)

This might not seem to be much of anything to cheer about-- big-time athletes are only slightly worse than regular students-- but that overlooks the additional handicaps faced by the athletes, namely the large amount of time they spend in practice and on road trips, and the fact that many of them come into college with less academic preparation than their less athletically gifted classmates. The fact that these rates are comparable at all is kind of impressive.

("Yeah, but they're just cheating," you say. Well, none of the schools I looked at have been accused of significant academic fraud. I suppose it's possible that they're just good at hiding the fact that they fake the grades for their athletes, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

("OK, but the athletes gravitate toward really cheesy majors, and take only the easiest classes in those majors," you say. I reply, "Do you know any actual college students?" Athletes are far from the only students choosing majors and classes on the basis of what will prove least taxing. If anything, they're doing it for better reasons than the typical beer-swilling, dope-smoking World of Warcraft addict.)

Is it a good thing that only 52% of Maryland's black male athletes graduate? No. But the real tragedy is that only 54% of Maryland's black male students graduate. We should fix that problem first-- by improving public education so that students from poor and minority backgrouds come to college with the tools they need to succeed-- and see if the athletic graduation rates don't take care of themselves.

But it's easy to write self-righteous editorials blasting high-profile sports programs for their academic failings, while fixing the class and race problems of American education will cost real money, and require actual work. And nobody wants that.


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Not trying to sound uncivil, but it's equally easy to write self-righteous criticisms of the public school system, as though its planners or agents wittingly or unwittingly sought to hold back poor and Black students, so that the system must be fixed somehow.

You cannot believe how much re-engineering has gone on, with essentially no change in adult outcomes. Head Start can improve literacy, but nothing else that lasts into adulthood. Per pupil spending is highest in Washington, DC, yet its students do abysmally. And on and on. If there's a way to re-design the school system so that all students perform equally excellently, it is a well-guarded secret.

One way to test whether athletes are cheating is to look at their SAT scores. These are a rough indicator of a student's intelligence -- and anyone from academia who challenges that must immediately campaign to end the use of the SAT and GRE for their department (but then they could read the research showing that it is, roughly, an intelligence test).

If athletes have low scores yet earn excellent grades, that means they're cheating or being socially promoted. The only alternative is that they're spending every free hour studying and working hard to make up for not being bright -- but as you've pointed out, most of their time is devoted to sports and having fun.

Heh. I think some politician ought to incorporate this line into a stump speech.

Whoops. Where'd the quote go? Let's try this again.

If anything, they're doing it for better reasons than the typical beer-swilling, dope-smoking World of Warcraft addict.)

Heh. I think some politician ought to incorporate this line into a stump speech.

What parts of diversity admissions and full scholarships impede Blacks' academic success? A scientist examines graduation rates, SAT and LSAT scores, national medical boards... every anonymous standardized objective evaluation... plus 40 years of Head Start disaster and cedes empirical reality. Try toilet training chimps.

Lucy: Growing Up Human: A Chimpanzee Daughter in a Psychotherapist's Family, Maurice K. Temerlin. "Temerlin explains his guests psychological failings because they are horrified at having a chimp defecate in their lap." Uncle Al is aghast at university diversity admissions.

Also consider that some athletes might not have gone to college if not for the athletic program. So there is a bit of a selection bias even in your comparison.


You can't use DC's spending as any sort of guide. DC's public school system is rife with corruption. For all the money they 'spend', their schools still have massive maintenance problems, they lack books and supplies for students, and their teachers make crap compared to Fairfax and Montgomery counties. Those kids are getting shafted coming and going, and it's not their fault.

Also consider that some athletes might not have gone to college if not for the athletic program. So there is a bit of a selection bias even in your comparison.

If anything, though, that would tend to lead to lower graduation rates among athletes. Which makes the fairly insignificant difference between the rates for athletes and non-athletes look even better.

I am struck by the big disparities on a school by school basis. Duke and Stanford have big sports programs, but, as Chad points out, the graduation rate of a black male athlete is the same as a black male non-athlete, and those rates are 30% higher than, say, Syracuse or the University of Maryland.

The real question is, what is Duke doing right, and how can Syracuse or the U of MD replicate it?

By Brad Holden (not verified) on 31 Oct 2007 #permalink

I know I should not respond to the race-baiting troll but:

"and anyone from academia who challenges that must immediately campaign to end the use of the SAT and GRE for their department"

The department I am affiliated with found almost correlation between GRE scores and post-PhD success. Students with a score above 70% had a higher rate of completion, however. In fact, the GRE correlated best with doing well in classes and on the candidacy exam (hence the higher rate of PhD completion). People good at taking tests apparently test well.

So much for it being an "intelligence test."

By Brad Holden (not verified) on 31 Oct 2007 #permalink

Students who graduate at the top of their class, regardless of SAT score, do well in college (at least after the first year) because those motivated to do well will do it. This is particularly true for those of who attended lower performing schools (usually lower socio-economic status). The SAT tests what one has been taught (like all tests) not how hard one is willing to work or how much potential one has.

Two asides to the debate on graduation rates of black athletes: I once had a class with a gymnast who complained that they were really pushed to graduate on time (with many other non-football/basketball athletes) to keep the schools average up; did the NCAA data show this? Has anyone else heard of this? This same gymnast said that because their season ("winter") spans both semesters and away meets mean no afternoon Friday classes (yes they do exist), most of the girls had to go to school full-time in the summer, too. Does there seem to be a difference between fall, winter, and spring sports graduation rates?

By marciepooh (not verified) on 31 Oct 2007 #permalink

One confounding factor in comparing student-athlete performance to that of other students is that, at least at large schools, there is a significant academic support infrastructure for athletes. At the place I teach, the athletic department closely monitors varsity athletes throughout the course of the term (the students are supposed to report their grades to their team, and we teachers are asked to file notes on their performance one-third and two-thirds of the way through the semester). They have mandatory study sessions, and if they're doing poorly the athletic department arranges and pays for tutoring. This makes it hard to claim that we really have an apples-to-apples comparison in a lot of these cases.

On standardized tests: When I last looked at the topic (the mid-90s), the data showed that SAT performance correlates well with first-year college grades, but that its predictive value after that is weak.

A very long time ago I was a TA for college algebra at a certain Arizona school. A guy asked me for a pass on the class because he was on the golf team. I about laughed out of my chair.

By Carl Brannen (not verified) on 31 Oct 2007 #permalink

One thing to bear in mind is that schools like LSU and many other public universities have much less selective admissions standards than private schools or more selective public schools like North Carolina. The numbers you cite sound quite predictable in light of this fact. I think it is less a question of "What is Maryland doing wrong?" and more a question of "How does Maryland's mission differ?"

The more interesting question is why are the graduation rates at Syracuse so low?