Journalism in the Public Interest

From ProPublica’s Sports Desk: Predicting NCAA Champs Using Academic Performance

What would happen in March Madness if the teams with the best academic performance won?


Butler University comes out on top of the first annual ProPublica NCAA Tournament Bracket. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

As March Madness kicks into high gear, we will at times see the best of college athletics: good sportsman[or woman!]ship, team work, laser-like focus. But there is also a seedier underside where schools recruit players who are not academically prepared, let them play while turning a blind eye to their scholastic progress, and may eventually turn them loose with no diploma or prospects to show for their hard work.

Academic reform efforts by the NCAA have identified men's basketball as being most prone to such abuses and poor academic performance, with shockingly low graduation rates for many teams and enormous racial disparities even among members of the same team, as Education Secretary Arnie Duncan, a former basketball player himself, pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed this morning.

"Colleges and universities need to stop trotting out tired excuses for basketball teams with poor academic records and indefensible disparities in the graduation rates of white and black players," Duncan wrote.

We've decided to create the first annual ProPublica NCAA Tournament Bracket, where the teams with best academic performance win. We created it via the New York Times' handy bracket feature. Relying on academic scores results in a somewhat unlikely projected champion: Butler University. (We're not the only ones who have had this idea: Inside Higher Ed has done their own academic performance-driven bracket. Update 3/17: And we should emphasize, they've been doing it for years.)

Click to see the first annual ProPublica NCAA Tournament Bracket.

Click to see the first annual ProPublica NCAA Tournament Bracket.

To do that, we used the NCAA's own numbers. For every sport at every school, the NCAA calculates an Academic Progress Rate score, or APR. A perfect APR of 1000 indicates that all of a team's athletes remain in the program and are in academic good standing. An APR below 925 will result in sanctions for your program, including loss of scholarship slots or a ban from postseason play. It's not a terribly high bar -- it corresponds to roughly a 50 percent eventual graduation rate according to NCAA estimates. (Here is more about the math.)

We've done this because we want to easily compare how well success in school corresponds with success on the court. As the tournament goes forward, the New York Times tool will evaluate the success of our picks, leading to all kinds of interesting potential analysis and we will keep you updated.

In 2008, an NCAA working group suggested changes for basketball programs intended to address the long-standing issues with the poor academic progress of student athletes. A similar earlier effort for baseball players had paid off. But member schools rejected the basketball reforms, in part because they were concerned about the effects on revenue.

And little wonder, with the big bucks at stake: a new Knight Commission report points out that the $400 million the NCAA has paid out to basketball teams for tournament appearances over the past five years has been distributed with little regard for the academic performance of the team. The message to schools: it pays to do what it takes to get into the tournament, even if that windfall is not passed along to the players.

In all, about a dozen teams in the tournament's 68-team field have been sanctioned because of poor academic performance in the past five years.

At the bottom of their brackets, academically, are teams that have serious problems. Two teams in the tournament, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (APR 825) and Syracuse University (APR 912), are actually currently being penalized scholarships. Birmingham's performance was so poor that it could have resulted in a ban from the tournament, but they were allowed to compete after submitting an action plan. The University of Texas at San Antonio had an abysmal multiyear APR of 885 but was also spared penalties because of "demonstrated academic improvement and favorable comparison based on other academic or institutional factors." The NCAA report is mum on why the University of California, Santa Barbara was not penalized with an APR of 902.

Teams with slightly better scores also obscure nearly total failure to ensure the success of African-American athletes. As Duncan pointed out, Kansas State gets a nearly passing APR of 924 overall, but that is because 100 percent of its white athletes have graduated in recent years, while only 14 percent of the squad's African-American athletes did.

There's another curious phenomenon, though. The schools that have the highest academic ranking overall often have less than stellar records with the performance of student athletes. There are seven teams in the tournament representing universities in the top 25 of the U.S. News & World Report rankings. None -- even Princeton -- has a perfect 1000 score, and the top schools' average is just 967. The University of Southern California, ostensibly the 23rd-best university in the United States, has a cringe-worthy APR of just 924.

A more direct comparison: The University of Michigan is ranked 29th by U.S. News, but it has an APR of just 956. Michigan State University is ranked 79th but has a perfect APR of 1000.

This raises the question: Are the best schools best for all their students, or are student athletes being left behind?

Hooray for you for doing this!  There is damn little difference between these college [and even some high school] teams and professional teams except for the financial remuneration the players receive.  Of course, there are many forms of remuneration, some of which are too lurid to discuss. 
    As a former college teacher, I can testify to the subtle pressure put on the faculty to “keep so and so’s contribution to the team” in mind when grading him.  When one adds to the mental demands college courses should make, the physical stress of practice everyday and weekly games not to mention the long absences for tournaments,  one realizes that collegiate athletics is a joke. 
    Let’s face it, it’s training for the pros who pay not one dime for the service.  Sadly, I’m beginning to see this at the high school level as well.

I’m glad you’re realizing that college “sports” are just another name for big business. If I were a student paying tens of thousands of dollars for a college education, I’d be highly pissed to know that others are receiving more money than I’m paying and might have trouble passing a high school GED.

I guess money really does make the world go round.

I am surprised Mr. Duncan has time to write on such a trivial subject.  I am sure he is aware that we only get half our students through our high schools and most of them are only semi-literate and must take remedial courses before starting college level work.
Spend your time on K-8 progress, Mr. Secretary, and all will turn out well.  You are wasting valuable time and resources on water over the dam.
If you cannot get a kid successfully through grade school, no one can make s/he successful in high school.  Same goes for high school.  If they are not successful in high school, they are very unlikely to get through college.
I say what I have said as a retired CEO who suffered through more ignorant master’‘s degree holders than my fair share

Dylan Smith/

March 18, 2011, 11:12 a.m.

“First annual?” Surely a jest from the copy editor ; )

Hi Author,

Have people discussed, with any consistency, the idea that schools could award athletes “retroactive” scholarship. Under such plans, kids who were not academically able to matriculate or not focused enough to matriculate during their college age years could take advantage of their scholarship later in time.

Perhaps the passage of time could allow these big money athletes a chance to A) gather more academic skills or B) use their acquired maturity to earnestly pursue a college education.

There are a host of actions that could be taken to make big money NCAA sports more equitable for students who are poor in terms of finances or academic preparation.


Ms. Pierce,

Super job! You became the oracle of the tournament.

Having taught at several colleges and universities, I am not surprised over the emphasis placed on varsity athletics vis-a-vis academics by the administrations.  Excused absences from class for away games and even practices are held with the same level of importance as religious holidays, the flu, or a death in the family!

I find the NCAA numbers to be rather strange. Texas gets a higher APR than Duke even though only 60% of whites and 17% blacks graduate at UT. At Duke it’s 100% and 80%.

Athletes support the schools. When these guys drawing people to the campus and to tournaments, it draws money to the big public university, so it can keep hiring teachers. Also it makes the general populous feel good about the university so that the budget doesn’t get slashed to the bone in the state legislatures.

Yes those kids are ‘sacrificed’ for the larger school. but what is the larger schools dropout rate? Are they the only kids ‘sacrificed’?

This is Pro Publica, home of the Magnetar article.. surely someone there understands that schools are built off of securitized student loans, which are sold to investors. If you don’t have a sufficient supply of first year dropouts, the machine breaks down. Imagine if everyone passed their first year classes; second year classes would be just as crowded as first year classes, and third and fourth the same. You’d have to hire a bunch more teachers or lose accreditation.

Instead, the university attracts tens of millions of federal loan dollars, using the sure-to-dropout students as a kind of human money-delivery-device. The kid gets the loan, pays the money it to the university, and then the investors take care of the collections process. The university then takes this cash from the masses and redistributes it to the few that make it all the way through school. Of course they take a cut, creating positions like Associate to the Administrative Assistant for Student Development and Enrichment in the Administrative Operations Department of the Springfield Campus, or deciding that we need a brand new row of bright red flowers down the main sidewalk.  It is not about education, it is about money.

The Olympics dropped its demand for athletes to be amateurs (which many nations laughed at anyway.) It might be time for the NCAA to drop its requirement for athletes to pass classes (which many laugh at anyway.) Allow college players the option to attend classes with their scholarships.
Oddly, the “academic performance numbers” might not change that much, human nature being the strange beast that it is. Besides, the greats leave for the NBA in a year or two and the others might realize they need that degree.

Has anyone run the numbers on the women’s side?

PS: (Now risking last morsel of credibility) Considering the inhumane nastiness off the event,
the Tour de France should allow ANY drug.

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories