What does the NCAA men's basketball tournament have to do with education? More than you'd think, actually. In an exclusive study for Forbes.com, I determined that there's a strong historical correlation between graduation rate and winning basketball games. So strong that school bands might just think about adding Pomp and Circumstance to their repertoire.
That's also because some strict new NCAA rules will hold teams accountable for their graduation rate, and bar them from postseason play if it's too low. Among those teams that could be affected? 2011 champion University of Connecticut, which finished dead last in our graduation rate rankings, was stunned in its opening round game against Iowa State.
Our study revealed that since 2006, the team with the better Graduation Rate Differential (or GRD; more about this stat in a second) has won 39 of 50 games in the Sweet 16 and beyond. That's a .561 winning percentage for the school with the higher graduation rate.
These surprising results reflect the unlikely basketball success of academic schools like George Mason and Butler – as well as the success of basketball schools, like Kansas and North Carolina that sport surprisingly good graduation records.
Why do winning and graduating go hand in hand? It may be as simple as the fact that the very same things that work in the classroom – from short-term focus to long-term goal setting – also work on the basketball court. It also may have something to do with the fact that the NCAA is about to crack down hard on programs that don't graduate their players (more on this in a moment.)
Here's a quick primer on the methodology behind GRD. I started with Graduation Success Rate (GSR) numbers from the NCAA by way of Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. GSR follows athletes over a six-year period and is a more accurate measure than raw graduation stats. Then I subtracted the basketball team's GSR from the GSR of all male athletes in that school. This is an apples-to-apples comparison that measures basketball players against, say tennis players and rowers, on the same campus. The higher the GSR, the more likely the players are to graduate.
Tops on the 2012 list: Brigham Young, where basketball players are 24 percent more likely to graduate than other athletes, and Western Kentucky with a GRD of 20. Worst? Universty of Connecticut with a scary-bad GRD of minus 56, followed by Cal Berkeley (-46) and Florida (-45).
Why do strong academic schools like Georgetown and University of Michigan sit in the middle of the GRD pack? It's because while the team's graduation rate may be strong compared to other schools, it's still far lower than the near perfect graduation rate of male athletes campus wide. Duke (+3) still cracks the top 10, although its GRD hasn't always been this high in recent seasons.
Graduation rate is more than just a snarky way to fill in your bracket box. With movers like Education Secretary Arne Duncan paying attention, the NCAA will be using yet another acronym standard called APR to assess schools. Starting next year, teams that don't meet the NCAA standard of a four-year average APR of 930 – a modest graduation rate of about 50 percent – won't be eligible for postseason play. Schools are responding this looming mandate. According to Lapchick, only eight teams this year (Colorado State, Mississippi Valley State, New Mexico State, Norfolk State, Ohio, St. Bonaventure, Connecticut and Southern Mississippi) lie below that 925 standard. That's down from 21 teams in 2009.
But here's the headline: If these standards had been in effect last year, eventual champion Connecticut would have been watching on the sidelines – and may do so next year. UConn, one of the most prominent victims of the GRD curse, realizes that their APR won't make the grade and has already applied for – and been denied – a waiver from next year's postseason ban.
While it's nice to see some positive correlation between achievement in the classroom and on the court, the overall news is still pretty bleak. Richard Lapchick cites a huge 28-point graduation rate gap between African-American basketball players (60 percent) and white basketball players (88 percent.) The good news, such as it is, is that that 60 percent graduation rate is still higher than the 38 percent graduation rate for all African-American male students.
The chart above/to the right includes the Graduation Rate Differentials (GRD) for the teams in this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament. It includes the NCAA yardstick APR, but note that the NCAA is requiring a four-year average of 930, so the figures in this chart don't reflect whether your favorite team is – or isn't – in danger of being banned from next year's tournament.
Best college teams for the buck: