How March Madness teams fared in academics, grad rates

Editor’s note: Richard Lapchick is a human rights activist, pioneer for racial equality, expert on sports issues, scholar and author.

This year’s highly anticipated NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments are expected to excite fans and student-athletes across the United States, if not the globe. They will be the first NCAA basketball tournaments played without seating capacity restrictions since limitations were imposed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021 March Madness men’s Final Four had a maximum seating capacity of 22%, while the women’s Final Four had a maximum seating capacity of 17% because of physical distancing protocols. The men’s games were primarily held in Indianapolis, with a few early round games in West Lafayette and Bloomington. A majority of the women’s tournament was held in San Antonio, with a handful of early round games in Austin and San Marcos. Since fans missed out on the intense and electric feel of arenas last season, this year will be one to remember. Some fifth-year seniors who chose to use their extra year of eligibility remain on teams. This is more to freshman who are finally able to display their talents in front of an audience. This March Madness will be as close to normal as we have seen in a while for this iconic event. Deep three-pointers and aggressive slam dunks will electrify fans in attendance. Who will come out on top? Dozens of different brackets are trying to provide answers. Chances are none will, and that is why the odds are 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 to get it right in the men’s bracket alone.

After the very public display of the lack of gender equality exploded last year during the women’s tournament, the NCAA has worked hard to make things more equal. As the 2021-22 March Madness events unfold, there are some notable changes to the women’s side. The NCAA’s women’s championship committee decided to expand the bracket to 68 teams. Both the men’s and women’s brackets were released on the same night. And the women’s tournament will now use March Madness for branding to directly associate the women’s tournament with this exciting event. The women’s teams will receive the same type of tournament gifts as the men’s teams each round. The women’s Final Four teams will get their own player lounge at their hotel, which the men’s teams have had for several years. The NCAA is working on improving the fan experience at the women’s Final Four as well. This March Madness season, the NCAA will pay the women’s tournament officials the same rate as the men. Finally, the NCAA has decided to allow women’s teams to practice the day before their championship, like the men already do. There is still much to do, but the NCAA is headed in the right direction. One question going forward is whether the men’s and women’s Final Fours will be held in the same city, as the NCAA external gender equity review by Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP recommended.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) released its report, “Keeping Score When It Counts: Academic Progress/Graduation Success Rate Study of the 2022 NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournament Teams.” It analyzes the academic and graduation performance of teams in both the men’s and women’s tournaments. The study identified the teams’ Academic Progress Rates (APR) in addition to their Graduation Success Rates (GSR), asking the questions: Who displays superior academic performance? What do these numbers mean? What can we learn?

The women’s teams again scored higher in the APR and GSR category compared to their male counterparts. The 2022 NCAA Tournament APR/GSR study showed that female basketball student-athletes graduated at a higher rate than their male counterparts, with the women graduating at an average of 93.9% and the men graduating at an average of 87.2%. This was a result of a slight increase for women, from 93.1% in 2021 to 93.9% in 2022. The men’s tournament teams’ overall GSR had a much more substantial increase to 87.2% from 82.4 % in 2021.

Still, the women’s teams did significantly better than the men’s teams in all the categories we measure:

• Nine women’s teams achieved a perfect APR score of 1,000 (vs. one men’s team).

• Sixty-seven of the 68 women’s teams had an APR score higher than 950, whereas only 55 of the 68 men’s teams achieved an APR score above 950.

• There were 31 women’s teams with a 100% graduation rate vs. 23 men’s teams.

As academic progress in general continues, the most disturbing fact each year is the graduation rate gap between white and Black student-athletes. Fortunately, this year the gap has narrowed for both the women’s and men’s teams. For the men, the gap decreased by almost two percentage points, from 13.5% to 11.6% in 2022, while the gap between white female student-athletes and Black female student-athletes in 2022 is at 5.9%, a decrease from 6.1% in 2021.

In the past we have seen the gap continuously widen, but after countless efforts we see the gap of GSR between Black or African-American and white student-athletes starting to close. It is important to take into account the unique circumstances of these past two years, as that has played a part in the decisions some athletes have made to transfer or finish school early. However, in the academic community, it is critical that we keep making efforts to eliminate the graduation rate gaps and reiterate that academics should be at the forefront.

The NCAA introduced the APR in 2004 as part of a package of academic reforms designed to more accurately measure student-athletes’ academic success and to improve graduation rates at member institutions. The APR holds each team accountable for student-athletes’ academic success by tracking their eligibility (academicly) and retention (whether an athlete transferred). Teams that fall below an APR score of 930 — an expected graduation rate of 50% — are penalized.

A school’s APR and GSR metrics are used to measure how each school is doing academically. The revised NCAA APR standards took effect in 2016 and now require schools to maintain a four-year average APR of 930. Sanctions can be imposed by the NCAA if schools fail to meet the minimum APR requirement. They could include loss of scholarships and postseason competition, and reduced practice hours.

Having the 930 minimum APR is too low a bar with a 50% graduation rate expectation as the standard. All the teams have been way beyond that for several years. In fact, if we raised the graduation rate expectation to 60%, every women’s team and all but one men’s team in this year’s tournaments would have exceeded it already.

Student-athletes are again getting the opportunity to display their talents in front of fans during March Madness. For super seniors, this is their last dance. For sophomores, they finally have the opportunity to perform on this unique and enormous stage. Whether in the arenas cheering on their favorite team or watching from home, fans should buckle up for an exciting ride. Knowing they are prepared in the classroom can go well with their extraordinary accomplishments on the court.

Meghann Maguire, Candace Martin, and Harry Moberly made significant contributions to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick yeard we Facebook.

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