After years of studying black male athletes, Shaun R. Harper has learned a frustrating lesson -- the inequity among these men in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s five most powerful conferences isn’t disappearing.
Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Center on Race and Equity, has released a new study highlighting the disparities in graduation rates among black male athletes compared to the rest of the student population.
This is his third edition of the report, dating back to 2012, and shows that the graduation issue persists, as does the "overrepresentation" of black men on football and basketball teams.
"I would say one of the things surprises me is the durability of the inequity, given all of the rhetoric of the NCAA commitment to student athlete success,” Harper said in an interview. “The NCAA in recent years produced these television commercials that said black male student athletes in Division I graduate at higher rates, and that’s just not true.”
As Harper’s report identifies, it’s at best a half-truth. While across the board in Division I, black male athletes do graduate in higher percentages than black college men who don’t play sports, that’s not the case with the 65 institutions that comprise the Power 5, the NCAA’s wealthiest leagues: the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conferences. These are the colleges most in the sports spotlight that have, for decades, dominated football and men's basketball championships.
A little more than 55 percent of black male athletes at the Power 5 colleges graduated within six years, versus 60 percent of black men in the overall undergraduate population and about 76 percent of all undergraduates.
Only three institutions in the Power 5 -- the University of Louisville, Mississippi State University and the University of Utah -- graduated black male athletes at rates higher than or equal to their undergraduate populations.
Harper pointed to Louisville as one of the most improved since he last conducted the study in 2016.
(Notably, Louisville’s men’s basketball team has spent several years in the harsh light of scrutiny -- the powerful head coach there, Rick Pitino, was fired last fall after two major scandals.)
But Louisville boosted its graduation rates for black male athletes by 18 percentage points in two or so years, from 47 to 65 percent, which puts Louisville ninth highest in graduation rates among the 65 colleges and universities in the Power 5. A Louisville representative did not provide comment in time for publication.
The top three institutions for graduation rates of black male athletes were Northwestern University at 88 percent, followed by Vanderbilt University and University of Notre Dame, both at 86 percent.
Conversely, the University of Florida, the University of Georgia and Louisiana State University had the lowest graduation rates, at 37 percent, 36 percent and 34 percent, respectively.
The University of Georgia’s graduation rate also fell the most since 2016, from 51 to 36 percent.
Georgia provided a statement to a reporter from the athletics director, Greg McGarity: "We are dedicating the resources necessary to enhance the academic performance of all our student-athletes. There is always room for improvement in every measurement of academic and athletic achievement and we are committed to constant improvement in all areas of our program."
Louisiana State did not respond to a request for comment.
Harper relied on federal graduation rates for his study, as well as the NCAA’s data on athletes on scholarship to demonstrate that despite few black men enrolling in these universities, their big-time sports teams often are composed primarily of black men. This year, in a supplement to the report, he also recalculated the graduation data using the NCAA’s metric, the graduation success rate. Federal graduation data do not account for transfer students, but Harper said the differences in the two data sets were minimal.
Black men made up only 2.4 percent of undergraduate students enrolled across all 65 institutions, but they comprised 56 percent of basketball teams and 55 percent of football teams.
Institutions that highly prioritize sports will use every resource in the athletics departments to recruit black male athletes, sometimes from high schools with a poor academic record, and then don’t provide them the necessary support once they enter college, Harper said.
This also relates to the stereotype that black men have more athletic prowess than smarts, which can be quite damaging, Harper said.
Harper noted the professional leagues recruit a minuscule portion of college athletes, less than 2 percent, which leaves many players with few options once they have graduated, if they have done so.
He is advocating for a portion of athletics money be funneled instead toward admissions offices, which could use the funding to more aggressively entice black male high school students who wouldn’t be attending college for sports.
“Some would likely argue that affirmative action policies might not permit such targeted recruitment of one specific racial group,” Harper writes in the report. “Somehow, there is considerably less institutional anxiety about potential affirmative action backlash when coaches do all that is necessary to recruit Black men for participation on revenue-generating sports teams.”
The report also shows that only about 12 percent of the head coaches for men’s basketball are black, as are 15 percent of athletics directors. None of the Power 5 commissioners are black.
Harper advocates in the report for new commissions at multiple levels: institutionally, among the conferences and the NCAA. These panels would be charged with developing disaggregated data reports on athletes so college leaders could figure out how best to fix these disparities.
An NCAA spokeswoman, upon request for comment, forwarded the association’s database on race and gender demographics, which contains some of the information Harper requested.
On black athletes in Division I, NCAA president Mark Emmert said the following in a statement in November: “Student-athletes are reaching their academic goals and earning degrees at record rates. The dramatic improvement in the graduation rate for African-American student-athletes in all sports is a significant achievement, and our student-athletes and member schools should be proud of the work they are doing. The goal of the NCAA’s academic polices and programs is to prepare students for life after college and graduation is integral to this success.”
The NCAA spokeswoman told Inside Higher Ed she had forwarded Harper’s suggestions to its Office of Inclusion.