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Derrick Z. Jackson

Top on the courts, but Wisconsin at bottom of graduation rates

The Wisconsin Badgers’ mascot during Sunday’s game against the Oregon Ducks in the third round of March Madness. Getty Images

As a born-and-raised Cheesehead, I would love to chant “On Wisconsin” with a straight face as the Big Ten champion Wisconsin Badgers are a top seed in the NCAA’s men’s basketball tournament. But the honest tune is, “Off Wisconsin.”

If the 68 teams were seeded by graduation rates, the Badgers would be a bottom seed. They have the lowest Graduation Success Rate for black men of zero and the third-lowest overall at 40 percent. They were one of 16 teams that should be disqualified for historically graduating less than 50 percent of either black or white players or having an overall rate under 50 percent.


Now I know precisely what’s coming from Badger boosters. In my 19 years of following college football grad rates and the 18 I have tracked basketball’s, fans of flagrantly bad teams traditionally whine that the National Collegiate Athletic Association graduation rates are long-term data that do not necessarily reflect the men who are on the court at this very moment.

In fact last season, a New York Times story centered how the Badgers studied Italian, accounting, business and Plessy v. Ferguson during the tournament. A recent Forbes writer said a Badgers national championship would be “good for college basketball,” because their star senior players “prioritized academics,” without the “one-and-done stigma” displayed by para-professional programs such as No. 1 ranked and undefeated Kentucky. Ironically, Kentucky deserves a lot more credit than Wisconsin on this score as, of the players who don’t bolt for the pros, 89 percent of them graduate.

Long-term data still remain the best way to gauge a university’s sustained commitment to the model of student athlete. The current data accounts for the freshman scholarship athletes who entered school in either 2004-’05, 2005-’06, 2006-’07 or 2007-’08, with each athlete getting a federal-standard six years to graduate. The last possible freshman class that had six years to graduate by 2014 was the 2007-08 class. The NCAA says its data for each school is “provided by the institution.”


Four years of data tell you a lot more than one. And the Badgers aside, the public pressure to meet higher graduation rates continues to bear greatly-improved fruit. Both black and white male players set new respective Graduation Success Rate records of 68 percent and 95 percent. White male players are now on par with white women basketball players, who have a 96 percent graduation rate. Black women are at 83 percent.

Of the New England teams in the tournament, the Harvard and Northeastern men and the Connecticut and Quinnipiac women were 100 percent across the board. Work of course remains to be done on the major disparities remaining between black and white men. Those gaps can close quickly if programs like Wisconsin’s prove that this year is not a fluke, the academic version of one and done.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.


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