Public Policy Forum Blog

Grad Rates Show Different NCAA Tourney

As we head into the Final Four weekend, this year’s March Madness basketball tournament has been nothing short of a rollercoaster of emotion. If your bracket is anything like mine, your tournament was over on the first day (thanks a lot, Michigan State).

With the weather warming (ever so slightly) and college basketball winding down, we’re fast approaching the end of the school year, and with it, graduation. But for too many college students across the country, their odds of graduating are nearly as long as a 16-seed knocking off a number 1.

Nationally, just 59.4% of students complete a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting college. A bachelor’s degree is designed as a four-year commitment, so how many students actually graduate on time? An appalling 39.8%.

We know that the 64 teams participating in the NCAA tournament have excelled at basketball, but do their schools excel at graduating students?

To find out, we compared the four-year graduation rates for each college participating in the tournament. The college with the higher completion rate in each match-up advanced to the next round. The graduation rate data are reported to the U.S. Department of Education and represent students who began college in the fall of 2007 and completed a degree by the fall of 2011.
From the opening whistle, it was clear just how quickly this tournament deviates from reality. Number 1 seeded Oregon (43.6%) easily falls to number 16 Holy Cross (89%). Purdue (41.8%) was ripe for an upset until it was matched against Arkansas Little Rock (7%), which features the lowest graduation rate in the entire tournament. The South Region featured a veritable race to the bottom between Utah (24%) and Fresno State (13.7%). Virginia Commonwealth (29.7%) managed to survive against Oregon State (29.6%) by the thinnest of margins.

As bad as these colleges preform, there are others that graduate students at very high rates. North Carolina (80.6%) typically performs well in this tournament, but ran into a strong Providence (82.9%) in the second round. Similarly, Duke (87.1%) had its sights set on a deep run before meeting Yale (89.6%) in the second round. The championship game was truly one for the ages, with Notre Dame (89.8%) claiming the title by a razor thin 0.2 percentage points over Yale!

Not all colleges are created equal. Some emphasize student success, but the majority fail to help students graduate on time. Looking at graduation rates when selecting a college is just as important as looking at wins and losses when filling out a bracket. College Results Online is a fantastic resource for students and parents that compares a number of metrics – including graduation rates – for nearly every four-year college in the country. With better information, students can attend colleges that will give them the best chance of graduating on time.

Everyone loves a Cinderella in March, but students shouldn’t need a Fairy Godmother to graduate in May.



Joe Yeado