Annual Mis-Reporting on Graduation Rates

It's NCAA tournament time, which is time for everybody to break out the moralizing stories about the pernicious aspects of college athletics that they've been sitting on since the football season ended. The Associated Press (via the New York Times) clocks in with a particularly discreditable entry, a story on a study of racial disparities in graduation rates in major college baskeball:

An annual report by the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found a 2 percent overall graduation rate increase to 66 percent for Division I players, but showed the rates for white players is increasing at a higher rate.

The gap has grown from 22 percent in 2009 to a current level of 32 percent. White players show a 91 percent graduation rate, which is up 7 percent. Black players have a graduation rate at 59 percent, up 3 percent from last year's study. This is the third straight year the gap has increased.

Sounds bad, right? Of course, it makes the classic error of such stories, which is an inappropriate comparison between groups. Given that there are huge disparities in graduation rates for black and white students in general, the proper comparison is not between black athletes and white athletes, but between black athletes and black non-athletes and white athletes and white non-athletes (and so on, through however many racial categories you want to go through).

So, this sounds like a sloppy and biased study. Only it's not. Being the oldest of Old Media organizations, the AP and NYT don't deign to link to their sources, but a little Googling turns up the original study, or at least a press release about the study, which includes on page three the follow quote from Richard Lapchick, the lead author:

"However, it is equally important to note that AfricanâAmerican basketball players graduate at a higher rate than AfricanâAmerican males who are not studentâathletes. The graduation rate for AfricanâAmerican male students as a whole is only 38 percent, a full 18 percent lower than for AfricanâAmerican basketball studentâathletes. Presently, too many of our predominantly white campuses are not welcoming places for students of color, whether or not they are athletes. There are lessons that our campuses could learn from athletics."

Now, to be fair, this is buried all the way down on the third page of the press release, which also plays up the intra-athletic difference to a far greater extent. So it's not like the AP is alone in burying the lede.

Still, it seems awfully clear to me that the real scandal here is not the differences between athletes, but the fact that the graduation rate for African-American males is just 38%. Period, full stop, end of sentence. You want to know about issues of race in higher education, you don't even need to touch on athletics-- that number by itself is a scandal of vastly greater proportions.

But, of course, you could write that story any day of the year-- it's not tied to one of the biggest sporting events of the year. Which, in turn, means that that story will never get written, because there's no "hook" for it. Other than, you know, that this is an absolutely appalling figure.

Still, you might think a number like that would've worked its way into the story somewhere.

It's hard to find graduation rate stories that aren't about athletes, and I don't have time to do in-depth searching, but this 2006 article gives the graduation rate for all African-American students as 42% and the graduation rate for all white students as 62%, and the current figures probably aren't too far off those. Which means there's a case to be made that the disparity among athletes is greater than the disparity among the general populations, but that's still doing a very crude comparison-- to do this right, you would need to control for educational background and socio-economic status, in which case, I suspect you'd find something very different. But that's way too subtle for most journalists, let alone the audience they look down on.

More like this

These sorts of statistics are ripe for cherry-picking; some years ago, 60 Minutes made a big show of reporting numbers from the University of Louisville, at the time a basketball power. Only 20% of a particular recruiting class graduated within six years.
What they didn't tell you was that the recruiting class consisted of five guys, two of whom left school early for NBA riches and two of whom earned degrees after the six-year period.

That 2006 article also splits out male and female rates. The black MALE rate, bouncing around between 30 and 35%, makes that 38% number look optimistic. The 42% value you quoted reflects the much higher graduation rate of black women AND the fact that there are more black women than men in college. A lot more.

What you might be missing, given where you teach, is that the biggest difference between athletes and other students is that scholarship they have. Yeah, they work hard for it and can lose it after just one year, but they also get tutors that help when they lack the time to use other study resources. Money is a major reason students leave school, and also contributes to academic problems when they have to work 30 to 40 hours a week while in school, and black students are more likely to be from poor families as well as poor schools.

Also, I know I saw an article on IHE about a program that supports black male students on a mostly white campus and has raised their graduation rate to levels similar to that of other students, but can't recall the details.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

feralboy12, it isn't cherry picking if you use the same statistical measure for both groups. Some regular students will also graduate after more than 6 years, and they aren't counted either. (I know one who took 6 years just to finish the last 2.5 years of engineering school while working full time to support his wife and two kids.) Similarly, some will drop out and become highly paid welders or mechanics.

If they were measuring current employment, the questions and answers would be different. How many got CJ degrees and now work as prison or security guards?

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 15 Mar 2011 #permalink

CCPhysicist, I think feralboy12 may be right that using that particular class was a cherry pick. Small number statistics alone will give large deviations from the average, and we cannot tell from the information given how typical that outcome was. To make a meaningful comparison, we would have to average over several recruiting classes. That goes double if you are subdividing the group, whether by racial background, socioeconomic status, left- vs. right-handedness, etc.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink