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Studying up on athlete graduation rates

THERE are a few times in college when 58 percent is considered a great success. Organic Chemistry exams aside, there aren't many areas where this level of achievement is worthy of praise.

At Division I schools, however, officials are celebrating a 58 percent graduation rate for student athletes. The NCAA recently announced that the graduation rate for the latest class of student athletes - those entering as freshmen in 1992 - has improved 2 percent from the previous year. This is the seventh consecutive year in which graduation rates have improved.

Coaches and athletic departments nationwide are to be commended for increasing success in student athlete graduation rates. But if you look a bit deeper at the statistics, you see some less encouraging numbers.

There is wide variation in the graduation rates of student athletes across different sports, genders and races. For example, white and Asian females who play sports other than basketball and track graduate at 72 and 74 percent, respectively.

On the other hand, the rate for black male basketball players dropped four points from 37 percent to only 33 percent this past year. And these numbers are an average for all 318 Division I schools, which means a considerable number of schools and sports were below this percentage.

Such a range of success rates must tell us something. It is doubtful that the range reflects an inequality in academic resources available to athletes. It is unlikely that many women's water polo teams have better tutors and support resources than their school's men's basketball team.

The reality of college athletics is that, if any inequality in resources and academic assistance exists, it probably would favor athletes on the higher profile teams. More likely, this wide variation tells us that different subgroups of student athletes vary greatly in their commitment to academics.

The idea behind athletic scholarships at some point in time was to provide talented students with the means to attend college in situations when the student otherwise could not afford to go. And it is a system that has flourished in providing thousands of student athletes with an opportunity to use their talents to get a college education.

But all supposed goals of a system of collegiate athletics are geared towards a system of student athletes, not simply athletes. Is this still an accurate description of college athletes? Perhaps the answer is yes, but only for some athletes.

In this age of television and mass marketing, some college sports have become a major industry. Cable contracts generate millions of dollars in revenue to universities across the United States. Official and corporate sponsors abound, and luxury boxes are becoming common in college football stadiums.

Even more alarmingly, occurrences of academic fraud on the behalf of "student athletes" are all too common today. For example, the NCAA discovered in March that a faculty advisor at the University of Minnesota was completing coursework for men's basketball players. Is their status as athletes important enough that their role as students can be prostituted to keep them on the field? They continue to perform, to generate revenue, and to entertain. Punishments are minimal. The Minnesota players were temporarily suspended, but will be back on the court this year.

Millions of people do not turn on ESPN every Saturday to see a group of young men who are pursuing an education first and are athletes second. For many of the athletes that enter college on athletic scholarships today, their four- (or five-, or six-) year experience is not about higher academic learning at all, but merely a platform from which to attempt to propel themselves to the next level.

How to go about fixing this abuse of the system is not immediately clear. At a recent Jefferson Literary and Debating Society meeting, U.Va. men's basketball head coach Pete Gillen voiced his support for a proposal that would make acceptance of an athletic scholarship a binding commitment, requiring athletes to stay in school for a minimum number of years.

Another suggestion is that athletic scholarships could be structured more like student loans, except that the athlete would not have to actually pay them off unless he did not graduate. But these proposals surely would create an administrative headache because of athletes claiming extenuating circumstances.

Any battle against the tremendously profitable conglomerate of industries that is college athletics will certainly be an uphill one. But the current situation demands that something be done to address the problems of this system - before student athletes become an endangered species.

(Bryan Maxwell is a second-year College student.)

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