Tom Ross: Athletes score diplomas with Proposition 16

College basketball players' graduation rates are the real March Madness

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The soundtrack of last weekend was the crumpling of NCAA basketball tournament brackets being balled up and bounced off rec room walls into wastepaper baskets. The din reached a crescendo Saturday night when Alabama stunned top-seeded Stanford. It reached a new peak Sunday afternoon when Xavier thrashed Mississippi State.

Across America this morning, employees are wasting their employers' time, sifting through the wreckage of another March Madness office pool debacle. At least the Stanford Cardinals can go home holding their heads high, knowing that their university graduates a higher percentage of their men's basketball players than almost any institution of higher learning that competes in one of the top six basketball conferences. They just have a tendency to stink it up in March.

As for myself, I am proud to say that I have chosen a bunch of academic underachievers to win this year's tournament -- the Oklahoma State University Cowboys.

The NCAA reports that only 55 percent of the entire student body matriculating as freshmen at Stillwater in 1996, had graduated six years later. Among student athletes, 40 percent graduated. That's close to the graduating rate for male basketball players nationwide. However, Duke University Professor Stuart Rojstaczer, who has made a study of this disturbing trend, reported that fewer than 25 percent of male basketball players at Oklahoma State graduated between 1993 and 2001. Oklahoma State is not alone in this regard. Rojstaczer examined the graduation rates of male basketball players among the schools that make up the six biggest basketball conferences in the country: Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac 10 and Southeast Conference. He identified 13 major universities with men's basketball graduations rates between 0 percent and 25 percent. They included Minnesota of the Big Ten, Temple, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas Tech, Syracuse, Maryland, Arizona, Alabama, Arizona State, Oklahoma and Louisiana State. Another 22, including Colorado and well-known basketball powerhouses such as Michigan, UCLA, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina State and Ohio State, had graduation rates for male basketball players between 26 percent and 40 percent.

March Madness indeed. It makes you wonder why America is so smitten with the whole shooting match.

I feel like a hypocrite for undertaking this column after plunking down my $5 on the office March Madness pool. You see, every 11 minutes, I get up from the word processor to go into the other room and check the television for an update on the University of Wisconsin-Pittsburgh game (my Wisconsin Badgers were trailing the Panthers 41-40 with nine minutes to go, but I picked Pittsburgh to win in my tournament bracket).

Wisconsin is among 20 schools Rojstaczer found to have graduated between 41 percent and 60 percent of its male basketball players. Fortunately, there is good news at Wisconsin and across the land. A measure known as Proposition 16 is beginning to pay dividends, and when regarded as a whole, student athletes at many universities are demonstrating improved graduation rates.

Proposition 16 is an academic reform measure that compares grade point averages to standardized test scores to determine freshman eligibility for sports. The class of 2003 was the first graduating class that was subject to Proposition 16, and the results are obvious. Student athletes in Division 1-A posted a record 62 percent graduation rate and closed within three points of the general student population.

Student athletes at the Wisconsin achieved an 88 percent graduation rate in 2003, 13 points higher than the general student body and up 27 percent from 2002. The 88 percent graduation rate tied Wisconsin for third in the nation with Duke. They ranked behind Notre Dame (92 percent) and Tulsa (89 percent).

There were similar success stories at many universities -- for example, at Iowa State. The Cyclones picked up their graduation rate by 6 percent to 64 percent.

The Badgers ultimately lost the game Sunday because they didn't control the defensive boards. No Sweet Sixteen for Wisconsin fans, but I am becoming a big fan of Proposition 16.

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