U falls behind in athlete graduation rates

by Josh Linehan

A recent NCAA report on student-athlete graduation shows Minnesota lagging behind national averages and at the bottom of the Big Ten.

According to the report, which covers a six-year period beginning in 1995-96, Minnesota graduated 54 percent of its athletes, compared with a 50 percent rate across the student body during the same period.

Men’s basketball, under former coach Clem Haskins, posted a 9 percent graduation rate during the period including a failure to graduate a single black player.

Student-athletes nationwide earned degrees at a higher rate than any previously recorded by the NCAA since 1984, when they started tracking the rates. A full 60 percent of athletes nationwide received diplomas – compared to 58 percent of all students.

The University had a wide disparity in graduation rates among different sports.

Male student-athletes at the University graduate at a rate of 48 percent – below the student average despite having financial and advising advantages over the student body at large. Minnesota’s female student-athletes graduated at 78 percent.

Women’s basketball, under former coach Cheryl Littlejohn, posted the University’s best marks, graduating 86 percent of players.

Athletics director Joel Maturi decried the low marks.

“My initial reaction is the same as it was when I was doing my homework before I came here,” Maturi said. “We need to do all we can to improve graduation rates at the University of Minnesota.

“The fact is graduating students is at the top of our mission at athletics and is at the top of the mission of the University. And the bottom line is we’re not doing it,” Maturi said.

Maturi said his office would begin compiling its own numbers on a year-by-year basis to more closely track athletes’ academic progress. He said he’ll push to graduate 60 percent of athletes, and has informed coaches that graduation rates will be a major part of their evaluations.

“When we hit that, we’ll set the bar a little higher,” Maturi said.

University-wide changes, such as the new 13-credit policy, will help numbers within athletics as well, but specific improvements within the department are also needed, Maturi said.

“I have to make sure coaches know it’s not just about winning and losing,” he said. “But I have to walk the talk. If there’s a coach who is graduating players, keeping those players involved in the community and all the other things we ask of them, but maybe not winning as many games as we’d like, maybe I have to renew that coach’s contract.”

University professor emeritus Richard Purple – who resigned from the University’s NCAA committee in 1987 to protest the faculty’s lack of control over athletics – remains skeptical.

“He’s new, so he can say that,” Purple said. “But they will get caught up in the machinery. You’re talking about a huge amount of money there.”

When told of the football team’s 44 percent graduation rate, Purple said he was not surprised.

“That’s what you expect. That’s the way our football program has always been. Winning is important. Winning and loyalty. Honesty, academics and all the rest come in second,” he said.

As part of a nationwide group of professors called the Drake Group, Purple advocates a wholesale reform of major college athletics. Among many proposals, they advocated awarding scholarships for a full four years, not giving student athletes privileges – such as free tutoring – unavailable to the entire student body and scaling back competition schedules to give student athletes a chance to go to class.

He also advocates funding athletics the same way other departments are funded – by subsidizing them based on the degree to which they can raise their own funds.

“He who pays the piper calls the tune,” Purple said. “So they should be honest about subsidizing athletics. Because then they have a moral obligation to make the necessary reforms.”

Josh Linehan covers student life and welcomes comments at [email protected]