By Robert Weissberg
The cosmology of ideas to fix America's supposedly troubled higher education abound. Some resemble comets--small amounts of rock and frozen toxic gas that periodically appear, light up the sky and then vanish only to reappear decades later. Today's comet-like elixir is directed at the NCAA's Division I men's basketball tournament ("March Madness").
The facts are simple enough. First, basketball players are disproportionately African Americans (60%), especially among teams making it to the final four. Second, graduation rates of blacks are shockingly low, far below that of their white teammates. At Kansas State University, for example, all the white players are on the path to graduation compared to 14% of the black players. To be sure, a few teams (e.g., University of Illinois, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt) graduate all players and some graduate more blacks than whites (e.g., Boston University, Northern Colorado), but the gap is generally large (91% vs. 59%) and is growing.
The typical inference is that universities are exploiting African Americans. Schools recruit these often underprivileged youngsters while the school profits handsomely from their contribution, their "workers" often leave school without a diploma. That a handful will have a brief professional career (and even then, rarely in the big bucks NBA) cannot justify the exploitation and, in a sense, the exaggerated lure of the NBA only adds to the dishonesty.
Such grim statistics (and putative fixes) are hardly new and the issues has, comet-like, again appeared in the sky thanks to Arne Duncan, our Secretary of Education and a former Harvard basketball star. Both in 2010 and this year Duncan has suggested that schools with deficient graduation rates—less than 50%--for blacks be banned from the NCCA tournament.
This is serious business. CBS/Time Warner is paying the NCCA $6.1 billion over 11 years for the tournament’s broadcast rights and in 2009/10 the conference of a school that made it to the tournament would receive $222,206 to be divided as the school’s conference saw fit (actually calculated using a six year rolling average). This amount was per game so a conference with a school reaching the Final Four would thus receive well over a million dollars. Less well known schools also can receive immense free publicity by winning a few games (think George Mason in 2006 and Butler in 2010).
Duncan’s heartfelt pleas to “help blacks” aside, the idea yet again confirms that “reforming higher education” is often duplicitous play-acting. Duncan is just winning kudos on the cheap and that people actually take this charade seriously is truly disturbing.
Let’s start with the basics—basketball is a huge business and while some schools reap handsome profits, others lose their shirt. Though the accounting rules are often murky, in 2010 men’s basketball overall took in $1.076 billion, spent $795.651 million for a profit of 26.1%. The University of California-Berkeley, hardly a sports factory, grossed $5.8 million from men’s basketball, spent $4.8 million for a rate of return of 17.9%. Meanwhile Tulane shot an air ball—revenue was $743,597 but spent $1,937,529, a loss of nearly $1.2 million.
Second, basketball is largely played with five men, perhaps seven including subs, so one or two outstanding players can drastically alter outcomes and with a winning season, revenue can soar. I cannot think of any other sport, or industry, where turnarounds can come from such small personnel changes (not even a star football quarterback or running back can re-shape a team since there are twenty-two starters when including both offense and defense). That understood, turning red into black ink for a basketball team can be accomplished by recruiting a single dominating player. Imagine the President of Tulane faced with the prospect of admitting a super-talented seven-footer with an 8th grade reading level who might wipe out a $1.2 million deficit? Don’t ask, don’t tell will have a renaissance.
Third, powerful incentives exist to accommodate these miracle workers, and this probably includes going easy on the academics. Telling Tulane’s seven-footer to hit the books may bring early departure to a more accommodating school or a pro team. Several of today’s NBA stars—Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, among others—departed college after a year or two while others—Shawn Kemp, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, to mention just a few—skipped college altogether. Competition in recruiting future college stars can be brutal, and given the usual allures presented to these young men, how might the value of a diploma four years hence stack up against, say, immediate under-the-table cash, a car, and a coach with good NBA contacts? What rational athlete would risk staying all four years (or even five) and risk injury while lucrative gainful employment is just a telephone call away?
Fourth, if equality of graduation rates are dictated or strongly encouraged via tournament participation, hundreds of academically marginal black athletes will be denied an opportunity to attend a division I school. This alone guarantees Duncan’s nostrum being DOA. Recall the past dust-up over Proposition 48 that required that academically iffy recruits (high school GPA under 2.0 and a combined SAT of less than 700) to sit out their freshman year to catch up with school work free of grueling practices and travelling. College presidents demanded it but it was widely condemned by civil rights activists as “depriving youngsters of a college opportunity.” The civil rights pressure today would be even more strident—who will endorse any measure that bars the schoolhouse door to African Americans, many of whom are poor, who want an education?
Lastly, the tip-off that Secretary Duncan is just playing a dishonest game is his exclusive focus on “graduation,” that is, a piece of paper, not actually acquiring knowledge. Yes, Duncan may have graduated from Harvard but this is no excuse for ignorance. It is an open secret in today’s “make the numbers” university that getting the diploma is not especially difficult if administrators cooperate. The tactics are all perfectly legal: ample transfer credit from undemanding community colleges, cream puff “athletes only” courses, courses with all “A’s” and “B’s,” soft majors like sports administration and independent study courses entailing minimal work. On the edge of legality are hiring tutors to “help” write papers or providing clues about an upcoming exam. If all else fails, just doctor the transcript or give “A” credit for no-show courses. Perhaps Secretary Duncan’s ire should have been directed to college administrators clueless about the standard bag of tricks.
All in all, this is just one more instance of Kabuki Theater that passes for “education reform” in today’s politically correct infused atmosphere. The script requires proposing high-sounding but futile reforms to demonstrate that “one cares” about higher education all the while avoiding the obvious truths that dare not speak their name: the uselessness of trying to award genuine college degrees to those who hardly belong in college; the already wide-spread corruption that comes from chasing sports revenue and the fixation with pieces of paper as “proof” of learning.
Secretary Duncan could have been more honest. What about paying prized athletes or at least giving them vouchers redeemable for tuition, meals and books (jocks now become akin to work study students)? Further, add compensation from the NBA if a college player jumps ship early to turn pro. Better yet, to avoid hypocrisy and help pay players, schools might sell off naming rights to the highest bidder. This resembles the old industrial leagues where teams were fielded to publicize a business. Teams then had names like the Akron Firestone Non-Skids or the Chicago Studebaker Flyers so today’s equivalent might be the University of Michigan Cadillacs.
Unfortunately, of course, such frankness would bring pandemonium. No telling what a truth-teller might say next.
Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at the University of Illinois-Urbana, and occasionally teaches in the NYU Politics Department MA Program. He is the author of Bad Students, Not Bad Schools.