A study released Monday on the occasion of National Student-Athlete Day (or, as is more widely celebrated, the last day of the men's March Madness tournament), turns on its head a long-standing stereotype about black college athletes and the schools that recruit them.
Since the integration of major college athletic programs two generations ago, universities have been accused of using black athletes to win titles and build lucrative brands — with nary a degree exchanged in the process.
But today, it turns out, athletic departments are doing a better job of graduating black students than universities are as a whole. Put another way: black student-athletes are more likely to finish school than black students who aren't athletes.
The study, conducted by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, shows that over the last 25 years, graduation rates for black student-athletes have increased dramatically, from 35 percent among the entering freshman class of 1984 to 53 percent among the 2001 cohort. (Less substantial gains for white student-athletes were noted over the same period of time.)
Using the Federal Graduation Rate, that 53 percent mark compares to 45 percent of black students graduating out of the general student body.
While that news is encouraging for black athletes, Richard Lapchick, author of the study and director of the UCF institute, points out that it cuts both ways.
"I'm happy that the momentum has continued," Lapchick said, citing an earlier 2006 study on which the latest one was built. "But I think as much as it brings praise to college athletic departments, it's also a statement of universities in general not being as welcoming to African-American students."
Athletic departments have an added layer of academic support that isn't available to the general student body, such as providing tutoring, accounting for some of the difference. But Lapchick also pointed to efforts by athletic departments to increase minority hiring, another trend the institute tracks at both the college and professional levels. He sees a direct correlation between minority hiring and the graduation success of minority athletes.
Another factor is that the NCAA in 2003 adjusted its eligibility requirements, replacing a bottom eligible cut-off SAT and ACT score with a sliding scale of measurements between test scores and grade-point averages. The majority of newly eligible students who have benefited from the change have been black, according to the NCAA, and the association says many of those students have fared better than those who were eligible under the old metric, reaffirming the criticism that standardized testing isn't the most accurate predictor of academic success.
As a result of the eligibility changes, the latest cohort in Lapchick's study not only has a higher graduation rate, but also is a larger group.
One problem that the big-picture statistics continue to show, however, is that black students, whether they play sports or not, are still graduating at a significantly lower rate than their white counterparts: Among the 2001 group, 68 percent of white student-athletes graduated compared to 53 percent of black student-athletes. That trend has been one of the most vexing to Lapchick in his career of monitoring the sociological side of sport.
"If we only bring them to college campuses and don't expect them to perform academically, we're not really delivering on the promise we make to those student-athletes," he said. "And if more white students are doing better than African-Americans, then we're not delivering on the promise of equality."
The NCAA, under President Myles Brand, has attempted to narrow that gap, but Lapchick is primarily hopeful thanks to the appointment of new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — the former head of an urban school district in Chicago who happens also to be a sports fan and a former college basketball player. Student-athletes' best chance for success in college, Lapchick believes, lies in preparation at younger levels, when questions of funding, equipment and teachers belong to government officials and not the NCAA.
In the meantime, Lapchick knows his latest conclusion will be counterintuitive to a lot of people.
"I think that because of the poor graduation rates in the past," he said, "and the significant level of discussion on the exploitation of black athletes — some of which I authored over a long period of time — (this study) should serve to break those stereotypes, that we are trying to be more reassuring of student-athletes finishing their education."
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