Third Annual Academic March Madness

by Lindsey Luebchow

There haven't been many upsets in this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament, as big name basketball powerhouses have dominated the hardwood. But evaluate the Sweet Sixteen based on the most important academic competition of studying for and obtaining a meaningful degree and you'll find that most of the top teams wouldn't even come close to cutting down the nets in Detroit early next month.

Higher Ed Watch's third annual Academic Sweet Sixteen examines the remaining teams in the NCAA men's basketball tournament to see which squads are matching their on-court success with academic achievement in the classroom. And for the third consecutive year, academic indicators produce a championship game match-up that isn't on anyone's radar: Purdue versus Villanova, with Purdue's 80 percent graduation rate trumping Villanova's 67 percent. The University of North Carolina and Michigan State, meanwhile, round out the Final Four with graduation rates of 60 percent.


Second Annual Academic Bowl Championship Series Rankings

In a few weeks, the Florida Gators and Oklahoma Sooners will face off on college football's biggest stage in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) National Championship game. Unfortunately, many of the college seniors playing in this game will not be walking across the graduation stage next May. Instead, their schools will revel in the short-term glory of gridiron success, while the players will have to face the long-term consequences of joining the workforce without a college degree.

Higher Ed Watch's second annual Academic BCS rankings show that Florida and Oklahoma are not the only elite football schools doing a dismal job of graduating their players. Only 55 percent of Division I-A football players leave college in six years with a degree -- and that number drops precipitously at most big-time programs that solely focus on counting Ws and Ls instead of As and Bs. It also doesn't take into account the poor quality of the education many are receiving to begin with. Jock majors don't provide job-ready skills.

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College Sports Reform: Opening Up the Budget Books

Big-time college sports teams are not only skilled on the field, they are also talented at keeping their off-the-field activities in the dark. Athletics programs, for example, are experts at keeping their budgets under wraps. As spending on college sports soars to towering new heights, faculty members, students, taxpayers, and policymakers are often clueless about how the money is being spent.

The first step toward genuine college sports reform must be greater transparency -- in academic outcomes, as I argued last week -- and also in athletics budgets and expenditure decisions. While we have anecdotes about extravagant spending, the lack of transparency makes it difficult to know the extent of the problem. In addition, the NCAA's revenue distribution and scholarship rules encourage the professionalization of sports teams by emphasizing the value of athletic performance over academic achievement.

The NCAA -- or Congress if necessary -- must require the disclosure of more detailed information about athletic spending. The NCAA must also modify its own spending rules in order to slow down the college sports arms race and ensure that all athletes have the financial support they need to finish a degree.

College Sports Reform: Putting More Focus on Academics

It is a sad reality that many colleges do not treat their athletes as students, but rather as semi-professionals, for four years before dropping them into the real world without a meaningful degree or workforce-ready skills. Particularly at Division I basketball and football schools, colleges use their athletes to win championships and gain national prominence but too often leave them woefully unprepared for life away from the gridiron and hoops.

As I argued last week, the commercialization of college sports has gone too far. In this post, I will lay out the steps that I believe the NCAA and Congress should take to make sure that colleges aren’t allowed to lose touch with what really matters in higher education: graduating students with meaningful degrees.The first step toward reforming college sports is requiring greater transparency about the academic outcomes of athletes. Without better information, neither the NCAA nor Congress will be able to isolate and target academic abuses. The NCAA must also step up to the plate and fix flaws with its current academic monitoring and penalty system, as well as with its eligibility rules.

Luebchow's Journey: From College Sports Fan to Critic

I've been a huge fan of college sports for as long as I can remember. If I had to pick my all-time favorite activity for a Saturday afternoon, it would be attending a college football or basketball game. But in recent years, I started to realize that college athletics is not exactly the idealized extracurricular activity of talented students that I had imagined as a child.

When I entered the higher education policy world as a writer for Higher Ed Watch two years ago, I wanted to learn more. What I found was not pretty, and I was soon struggling to figure out how college sports had lost its way, and how policymakers could steer it back in the right direction.

Now, my time on the sports beat at Higher Ed Watch is drawing to a close. Before departing the higher education blog world, I wanted to revisit my recommendations for reforming college athletics. I understand that change will not come quickly or easily, but I do believe that demanding greater accountability from colleges for the academic performance of their athletes could significantly improve the way sports programs currently do business.

My Changing View of College Sports

When I set out to investigate the nexus between college athletics and academics, I quickly found myself immersed in appalling graduation rates and stories of academic corruption. It wasn't difficult to lay bare the dirty, profit-driven side of the college athletics world. But as visible as the problems were, few people seemed to care. Outside of isolated exposés and a few dedicated professors, there weren't very many serious efforts at reform.

Exposing Institutional Subsidies for Athletics

With all of the talk about the commercialization of college sports, there is a common assumption that university athletics programs pay for themselves. A new report from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) reveals, however, that most Division I schools are actually footing a significant part of the bill for their sports teams. The report also shows the amount colleges are spending on athletics has been rising rapidly, raising questions for students, faculty members, and taxpayers about colleges' priorities (hint, hint: we're talking about extravagant athletics facilities and sky-rocketing coaching salaries here).

In its new spending report, the NCAA, for the first time, provides a break down of the revenue that intercollegiate athletics programs receive -- distinguishing between those earned by the sports teams themselves ("generated revenue") and those that the colleges provide to the programs ("allocated revenue"). The NCAA's decision to provide these breakdowns represents an important step forward for athletic spending transparency in that it allows us to see the extent to which colleges are subsidizing their sports programs.

However, the usefulness of the report is limited as it discloses only aggregate numbers. As a result, we are left in the dark about how this is playing out institution by institution. At Higher Ed Watch, we believe that the federal government needs to strengthen its institutional reporting requirements on athletics spending, because it doesn't appear that the NCAA is willing to expose its members to that type of scrutiny anytime soon.

No NCAA Showdown Over Academic Penalties

When the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced its penalties for poor athlete academic performance this week, it let many high-profile Division I college basketball and football teams off the hook.

After four years of collecting data, the organization was set to enact full scholarship penalties for teams that fail to keep their athletes on track to graduate. But because of the NCAA's generous use of waivers for wealthy, high-profile athletic programs, as well as a flawed penalty structure, many teams with poor academic records found themselves in the clear.

Under the NCAA's Academic Progress Rates (APR) system, teams get points each semester for retaining athletes and for keeping them academically eligible. The NCAA has a system of penalties for teams that post low APRs. For the past three years, most teams have not been subject to the penalties, however, because of squad-size adjustments, or exemptions due to insufficient data.

In Pursuit of a Quality College Education: An Academic All-Star Basketball Team

Last week, Higher Ed Watch published its annual "Academic Sweet Sixteen" bracket, which ranks the teams in the NCAA tournament based on their basketball team graduation rates. While it's important to consider how many players leave school with degrees in their hands, there's a significant flaw in the comparison. We have no way to determine whether players who graduated actually learned anything or obtained the skills necessary to enter the workforce.

As we discussed during the football season, there is no data on college quality for athletes and very little for college students in general. It's widely known that athletes often cluster in "jock majors," which provide them with classes that demand and teach very little. The goal of many big-time basketball teams is simply to keep their players academically eligible, not to give them an education that will be of value in the future.

But because there is no objective way to track the relative worth of athletes' degrees (and remember, this problems extends to all consumers of higher education), we have to rely on anecdotal evidence.

Academic Madness in March

Amid the flashy, commercialized spectacle of March Madness, it's time again for Higher Ed Watch to bring some sanity to the national debate about which team deserves to be crowned the NCAA champion. Like last year, we have a different take on how to calculate basketball team success. It's not about RPI, or victory margin, or strength of schedule. We're interested in how the Sweet Sixteen basketball teams are performing in the classroom.

Higher Ed Watch has been critical of the student-athlete charade at most top basketball and football programs. These teams do not adequately support the academic development of their athletes, instead using them to win on the field and court and gain national media attention and commercial value for the school.