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Graduation rates up for black players at Power 5 schools

Graduation rates for black athletes in football and men's basketball at Power 5 conference schools are increasing on average, but 40 percent of schools showed declines in such rates during the past two years, according to a new report on racial inequality in college sports.

The report, released Sunday by the University of Southern California's Race and Equity Center, shows Power 5 graduation rates for black football and men's basketball players have increased by an average of 2.5 percent since 2016. Thirty-six schools in Power 5 conferences had increases -- by an average of 6.5 percent -- led by Kansas State (18 percent), Louisville (18 percent) and Vanderbilt (17 percent). But 40 percent of Power 5 schools have had a decrease in graduation rates among black football and men's basketball players, with the biggest drops in the past two years occurring at Georgia (15 percent), LSU (11 percent) and Ohio State (11 percent).

"We should be going in the other direction, given the attention that the topic has gotten in recent years," Shaun Harper, a USC professor who authored the report, told ESPN. "I was really shocked that it was 40 percent."

Black male athletes, who make up just 2.4 percent of the undergraduate population at Power 5 schools but 55 percent of the football teams and 56 percent of the men's basketball teams, are still graduating at lower rates than the other groups Harper studied. Of black male athletes in football and basketball, 55.2 percent graduated within six years, compared to 69.3 percent of all athletes at Power 5 schools, 60.1 percent of all black undergraduate men and 76.3 percent of all undergraduate students. Only Miami, Georgia Tech and Arizona had equal or higher graduation rates for black male athletes than all athletes, and only Louisville, Mississippi State and Utah graduated black male athletes at an equal or higher rate than the overall undergraduate population.

Eight Power 5 schools -- Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, Stanford, Duke, Georgia Tech, Michigan and Wake Forest -- are graduating more than 65 percent of their black male football and basketball players. Although Kansas State, Michigan State and Ole Miss had some of the biggest graduation rate increases in the report, all three schools remain in a group graduating less than half of their black football and basketball players. Several schools among the lowest graduation rates for black football and basketball players -- Ohio State, California, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina -- have graduation rates for all athletes that are 25 to 35 percentage points higher.

Louisville not only had a major increase but also now ranks in the top 10 for highest graduation rate among black football and men's basketball players (65 percent). The school's graduation rate for black male athletes is 18 percentage points higher than its number for all black undergraduates and 12 percentage points higher than its number for all undergraduate students.

"When we look at the list of places that are really high performers, I don't think it would surprise a lot of people that Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech are on the list," Harper said. "But Louisville might be a surprise to folks. They hadn't been on the list before."

Harper, who produced similar reports in 2012 and 2016 while working at the University of Pennsylvania, compiled his data using the NCAA's federal graduation rates database for schools from the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. Harper's 2018 report includes scholarship athletes and does not account for athletes who transfer. The NCAA's Graduation Success Rate metric accounts for transfers but cannot be applied to other groups Harper uses for comparisons, such as undergraduate non-athletes. But the graduation rate gaps between black male athletes and overall athlete populations is similar for both the federal rates and the GSR. The federal numbers show black male athletes' graduation rate at 14.1 percentage points lower, while the GSR shows a 13.6 percentage point disparity.

Harper's report notes that despite strong representation from black male athletes in Power 5 football and basketball, black men represent 11.9 percent of Power 5 football and men's basketball coaches and 15.2 percent of Power 5 athletic directors.

Harper recommends that the NCAA create a commission on racial equity that would raise "consciousness within and beyond the association about the persistence and pervasiveness of racial inequities."

He also calls for the NCAA to separate data reports by race, gender, sport, division and other areas, noting that the NCAA often says black athletes graduate at higher rates than black non-athletes, even though that number doesn't apply when examining the five highest-profile conferences. Another recommendation calls for conferences to pay for their members to set up programming and other initiatives that "aim to improve racial equity within and beyond sports."

Harper plans to send the report to every Power 5 football coach, men's basketball coach and athletic director. He hopes the report can have greater impact now that he's at a Power 5 institution at USC.

"I absolutely welcome conversations with coaches and athletics directors and provosts and presidents of these 65 universities," Harper said, "to strategize about what we can do to move forward."

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