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Yet another piece of evidence for the 'don't believe official numbers' principle. Gregg Easterbrook takes the NCAA to task for their cavalier attitudes towards the "C" element of NCAA, particularly for basketball players. He points out that their graduation rates are not just poor, but embarrasingly such -- so much so that the NCAA has ceased reporting some of the numbers. That's all true -- but Easterbrook relies on official NCAA graduation statistics to make his point. And that seems reasonable; what could be more straightforward than a graduation rate statistic? Number of people who enrolled, and the number who graduated. Simple.

Or not. In fact, there are four problems, particularly when applied to college basketball, in the construction and interpretation of these statistics.

  1. The rates are 6-year graduation rates. While one would certainly hope that everyone could graduate within six years, not all do. This is a relatively minor point, as it seems likely that most students (and I use the term loosely) who don't graduate within six years never do -- but some might.
  2. The graduation rates use a ridiculous accounting method for transfers; those students essentially disappear into the ether. If a student enters a school, stays there for two years, and then transfers to a different school and graduates on-time from that school, he's counted no differently towards his first school than if he flunked out -- that is, they're penalized in the rate. Meanwhile, his second school gets no credit for him in their base graduation rate. (There is a separate statistic compiled by the NCAA for transfers, but nobody looks at that number when discussing a school's graduation rate.)
  3. Easterbrook would have you believe that all those student-athletes who fail to graduate are dropping out due to the, shall we say, lax attitude towards educating these students. Not so. A significant percentage are athletes who left school early to enter the NBA. We can debate whether or not underclassmen entering the NBA draft is a positive phenomenon -- but either way, it makes no sense to treat someone who forgoes his senior year for a multimillion dollar contract the same as someone who dropped out because he couldn't manage to spell cat if you spotted him the "c" and the "a."
  4. As the Jim Harrick scandal shows, whether a student graduates or not isn't very useful for comparative purposes; some schools actually require students to attend class, while others invent fake classes like Basketball 101, and then give enrollees As even when they don't satisfy the minimal requirements for those "classes."
The point here isn't that Easterbrook is wrong to complain; the way the NCAA pretends to be an amateur adjunct of academia when it's really a professional minor league where the players don't get paid is disgraceful. The point is that official statistics don't mean much unless you understand how they're constructed.


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Comments (2)

Patrick K:

Is the number of college basketball players who drop out to join the NBA draft really a "significant percentage"? My back of the envelope calculations suggest that if there are 200 Division 1 basketball programs with 12 athletes each, that is 2400 athletes, or about 600 per class (Fr-So-Jr-Sr) The NBA draft has 2 rounds and (about) 60 spots per year. If we assume that 1/2 of those drafted are either college seniors, HS phenoms, or foreign players, then only 30 slots per year are taken by the 1800 or so potential college dropouts. Thus NBA contracts do not go to a "significant" (in my book) % of dropouts.

No, it's not significant when looking at the question at the divisional level. But when looking at individual schools, it is. Those drafted early aren't randomly distributed, of course; they tend to come from the handful of elite programs. And with only a dozen "students" per team, a few leaving early is a big hit out of a team's percentage.

So if the issue is the NCAA's overall patheticness, you're correct (and that's actually true of the other points I raised, also) -- but when you start comparing particular schools, you run into this problem.


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