The NCAA announced that 90 percent of student-athletes who enrolled in college in 2013 graduated within six years. For women’s basketball, the mark is 93 percent. But do these praise-worthy headline numbers mask a more complicated reality about college athletes and academic success?
We’ll take any good news we can get in 2020.
According to the NCAA’s most recent Graduation Success Rate report, 90 percent of Division I student-athletes who entered college in 2013 earned their degree within six years — the highest rate ever.
NCAA President Mark Emmert announced:
The commitment of Division I college athletes to the classroom is incredible, and we celebrate their academic success. To see 90% of student-athletes accomplish the ultimate goal of college graduation is a testament to their hard work and dedication.
Women’s basketball players exceeded the 90 percent, with 93 percent graduating. This number is a two percentage point increase over the 2019 mark. Greater success by Black women student-athletes drove the overall increase — the graduation rate of Black women basketball players increased by three percentage points from 87 to 90 percent.
This 90-percent mark represents a 20-percentage-point improvement over the 18-year period that the NCAA has collected data for the Graduation Success Rate report. In 2002, only 70 percent of Black women who played basketball graduated. From 2002 to 2020, the graduation rate for white women who played basketball increased from 87 percent to 97 percent.
Celebrate with caution
Any celebration of the significantly improved academic success rate of Black women basketball players must be balanced by an awareness of the racial graduation disparity that remains. To more fully understand the improvement by Black women and the still-existing race-based gap, it would be interesting if the NCAA collected, analyzed and disseminated socioeconomic data about student-athletes, too.
In 2017, The Undefeated examined what they described as the “gentrification” of college sports, noting the declining number of student-athletes who were first generation college students. Based on the data The Undefeated evaluated, only 14.2 percent of Division I athletes were first generation in 2015.
Why does this matter? As described by The Undefeated:
First gens are typically from poor and working-class families that have difficulty paying for college without scholarships. For first gen athletes who don’t go onto the pros — the vast majority – an athletic scholarship is their ticket not just to a degree, but also for entry into the middle class.
Due to the ways racial identity and class status intersect in the United States, many first gen college athletes are Black. Thus, the improved graduation rate by Black women basketball players can be understood as a product of the declining number of first gen, or socioeconomically disadvantaged, Black women participating in women’s college basketball. According to The Undefeated, from 2010 to 2015 the number of first gen women’s basketball players dropped by 300. It can be presumed that this decline continued, if not accelerated, through 2020.
In short, college sports are increasingly composed of already academically successful student-athletes. The NCAA has seen vastly improved graduation rates for Division I student-athletes not due some magical elixir of academic discipline and scholarly determination that playing sports (without fair compensation) instills, but because an ever-growing number of student-athletes come from backgrounds that suggest they would succeed in college regardless of whether they played sports.