Low Graduation Rates: It's Not Just Student-Athletes

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Harry E. Walker / MCT / Landov

Connecticut's Alex Oriakhi, right, and Butler's Andrew Smith tip-off the NCAA Men's Basketball Final at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas, Monday, April 4, 2011.

When the University of Connecticut beat Butler on Monday night to win the NCAA championship, they brought down the curtain on an unusually exciting men's college basketball tournament. But one aspect of the tournament was entirely predictable: The handwringing about the low-graduation rates for many basketball programs. While graduation rates for student athletes are improving, poor outcomes remain a serious problem. In this year's tournament, only 42 of the 68 teams graduated at least 60 percent of their players, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. The winning Connecticut Huskies have a 31 percent graduation rate for basketball players.

The attention to low-graduation rates among some athletic programs should not distract us from the more systemic problem of low graduation rates for college students overall. President Obama has challenged us to "win the future" in part by improving college completion and more students are going to college now than did a few decades ago. Unfortunately only about 57 percent complete a degree within six years. Among those choosing two-year colleges the completion rate is only about 30 percent. Most stunning are gaps in completion by income. In 1972 thirty-eight percent of high-income Americans earned a bachelor's degree by age 24. Now, 82 percent do. Among low-income students, however, that figure was 7 percent in 1972 and it's 8 percent now.

Of course, college is not for everyone and there are plenty of worthy and fulfilling pursuits that do not require a college education. But as research by Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution illustrates, college does remain the most powerful way to increase class mobility in this country. Overall, low-income students who go to college are very unlikely to remain low-income, while those who don't will struggle mightily to do better than their parents economically.

While college athletic programs have their share of problems, they also offer some ideas about how to improve college completion—especially among those who are the first in their families to attend college. While the low-graduation rates for some basketball and football programs grab headlines, actually student athletes graduate at higher rates than students in general—at the University of Connecticut, athletes have an 83 percent graduation rate. More telling, colleges know how to support athletes in order to keep them academically eligible to play intercollegiate sports for the four years they can under NCAA rules.

How? The stereotype is that athletes just take easy classes, if they show up at all. And while some of that goes on, the more instructive reality is that athletes enjoy a much different level of support than your average student. They often live in special dormitories, eat in special dining halls, have special study centers and tutors, and receive counseling and financial advice to help them navigate college life.

So what happens when colleges start to do some of those things for at-risk students? Not surprisingly you see better results. Middlebury College in Vermont, for instance, pays special attention to at-risk students and bucks the curve. The highly successful Posse Foundation incorporates these ideas in its efforts to help diverse students succeed in college. Trinity College in Washington, D.C., makes helping such students a core part of its mission. Trinity's President Patricia McGuire told me that her school uses what they call "intrusive advising" to ensure that students are not falling through the cracks. Trinity also intensively supports students in the first year and provides not only financial aid, as most schools do, but financial counseling as well. It's not just small schools that can do this—Florida State, for instance, takes steps to help prospective students as early as middle school.

Still, in general students are much more likely to see this kind of support if they happen to excel at one sport or another. Most college presidents, meanwhile, act as though they're powerless to really help at-risk students succeed. They're not. Despite the problems, a look at what is working in athletic programs around the country offers some promising practices that could be used more generally. Don't begrudge athletes for getting extra, they earn it with the time they put in. Let's just give some of the same support to more students who would also benefit from it, even if the closest they come to college sports is a ticket window.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for TIME.com, appears every Thursday.