Report reveals dismal graduation rates for Black male college athletes

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Kofi Biney

For many Black male student-athletes in Philadelphia, intercollegiate sports are perceived as a ticket to post-secondary success, especially when looking at area colleges like Penn State and Villanova, where the graduation rates for Black male athletes is 78 percent. But many colleges and universities are actually failing at the game of graduating these students, according to a report released by the Penn Graduate School of Education’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.

The report, Black Male Student-Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I College Sports, examines six-year graduation rates at 76 colleges and universities that make up six major NCAA Division I sports conferences: Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, and Southeastern Conferences. Three of the institutions are in the Philadelphia area, and two of those – Penn State and Villanova — are in the top 10 schools with the highest graduation rates for Black male student-athletes.

Report co-author Shaun Harper said that the numbers “suggest that both universities appear committed to Black male student-athlete success,” but that it is not representative of what is happening across the six athletic conferences. At Temple University, for example, the graduation rate for Black male student-athletes is only 46 percent.

With the report, "We wanted to raise public consciousness about the public inequity that is hiding in plain sight,” said Harper, also a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.

Harper and Penn doctoral students Collin D. Williams Jr. and Horatio W. Blackman conducted an analysis from 2007 to 2010 of Black men’s representation on football and basketball teams versus their representation in the undergraduate student body on each college campus. They also studied Black male student-athletes’ six-year graduation rates across four cohorts, comparing them to student-athletes overall, undergraduate students overall, and Black undergraduate men overall at each school.

What the authors found, Harper said, is “some really ridiculous racial inequities.”

Black male student-athletes represent only 2.8 percent of full-time undergraduates at the schools studied, but make up 58.4 percent of the football and men’s basketball teams.

Across the four cohorts studied, only 50.2 percent of Black male student-athletes graduated within six years, compared to 66.9 percent of student-athletes overall, 72.8 percent of undergraduate students overall, and 55.5 percent of Black undergraduate men overall. The study found that 96.1 percent of the NCAA Division I schools graduated Black male student-athletes at rates lower than student-athletes overall and that a whopping 97.4 percent of the institutions graduated Black male student-athletes at rates lower than undergraduate students overall.

The report authors said that these dismal numbers could be attributed to the fact that Black male student-athletes aren’t encouraged to engage in educational activities or engage with faculty. One 2007 study they refer to found that even though engagement with faculty is essential to academic achievement for Black and White male student-athletes, professors spent significantly more out-of-class time with the White students. A 2010 report used in their analysis found that coaches prioritized athletic achievements over students’ studies and discouraged participation in activities beyond their sport.

To improve their graduation rates, the report provides recommendations for five groups, including the Black male student-athletes and their families. Families should not look at sports as the gateway to a successful college career or professional sports career, Harper said.

“That is not what college is about. College is about learning. It is about development, both personal and professional, and academic development. It is about preparing yourself for whatever the next thing is after college.”

For the overwhelming majority of student athletes, that next thing is not the NFL or NBA — each year less than 2 percent of college student-athletes even make it into professional sports.

When picking a college, Harper said, Black male student-athletes and their families need to ask pointed questions of coaches during the college recruitment process. Among them: What is the graduation rate for Black men on your team? Besides the few who were drafted, what are recent Black male graduates doing? Will you support my interest in spending a semester abroad and doing a summer internship in my field? Give me specific examples of ways you encourage academic success and the holistic development of your players.

“When Black male students come to college just to play sports, they inadvertently reinforce the racial stereotype that they’re not here for an education,” Harper said.

“That particular stereotype harms all African American males.”

Kofi Biney is an intern at the Notebook.