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.