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Weinstein: March Madness at Time Magazine

By / 3.19.2015

Time Magazine (courtesy of the New America Foundation) recently re-published a new way to rank NCAA tournament winners according to their graduation success rates. According to the Time bracket, some pretty prestigious academic universities fair pretty poorly. Harvard, Georgetown, Texas, Wisconsin, and UCLA all lose in the first round followed by Virginia in round two. Among the top ten institutions on the list, seven had graduation rates for their basketball teams of 100 percent. In each of these cases, the rates for the basketball teams were higher than for the male population as a whole. In addition, the University of Kentucky’s (UK) Men’s Basketball team finished 20th on the list, with a team graduation rate of 89 percent compared to an overall male student graduation rate of 55 percent. That might be odd to some basketball aficionados given the large number of “one and done” players at UK (players who go professional after one year of college ball).

So what explains the discrepancy? Is UK really graduating 89 percent of its players? Is the Time Magazine bracket accurate? The answer for both is no.

It is important to understand that Time are not actually using graduate rates (how many entering students get their degrees) with regards to college basketball players. Rather, they have chosen to utilize the NCAA’s questionable bogus Academic Progress Rate (APR), which does not count many “one and done” players who leave to go onto the pros (NBA or elsewhere)

How does APR work? The system awards one point for each scholarship athlete in good academic standing and one for each one who either stays in school or graduates. So if a team has 10 scholarship players, and one drops out and is not on track to graduate, but all the others keep their grades up and either stay in school or graduate, then the team would earn a very good APR score (18 out of 20 points).

Now, it might seem that with all the early departures, Kentucky’s APR would take a big hit. However, if a scholarship athlete in good academic standing leaves to pursue a professional career, there is an adjustment to the APR so that there is no penalty.

So schools like Kentucky, which in reality graduate very few basketball players, get ranked high on Time’s list, while schools that actually graduate most of its players like the University of Virginia, University of Wisconsin, and Georgetown University look poor in comparison (disclosure, I graduated from Georgetown University in 1985).

Second, the comparison of APR and graduation rates for the male student populations at large is not “apples to apples” because APR does not include all dropouts but a graduation rate does. This makes the bracket pretty worthless in terms of usefulness.

Finally, there is the question of whether or not the APR data provided is even accurate. As recent scandals have underscored (see Syracuse University and the University of North Carolina), some institutions may be using a number of tactics (in violation of NCAA rules) to help student-athletes stay in good academic standing.

Maybe Time and New America should leave the prognosticating to the professional bracketologists.

Paul Weinstein Jr. is a Senior Fellow at PPI and directs the Graduate Program in Public Management at Johns Hopkins University.