Losing the Race in College Sports (Part 2 of 3): Race Is Just Part of the Story

photo by P. A. Jensen

The first installment in this series examined whether black, male student-athletes, and black students generally, are fairly represented on campuses of universities that participate in major-conference athletics. This part of the series focuses on their performances in the classroom compared to their peers’.

Discussions of race and college athletics often include classroom performance. Specifically, a widely cited report on the topic (Professor Shaun Harper’s “Black Male Student-Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division-I College Sports,” or “the report”) focuses on graduation rates of black, male athletes, which are indeed low at many major schools. The report calls these widespread rates “shocking,” while also inviting “more outrage and calls for accountability.” Using the same data sources as the report, we will see how the academic performances of black, male student-athletes are indeed poor, but perhaps not as “shockingly” poor as the report claims to show.

First, it is well established that a student’s sex is a predictor of academic success. At the schools that participate in big-money college athletics, female students graduate 5% more often than male students (79% vs. 74%). (This trend also persists among student-athletes, which we will revisit later.) For now, suffice it to say that sex is a predictor of graduation rates at schools in the “Power-5” athletic conferences, with males graduating less often than females, both among student-athletes and within the student body generally.

It is also well established that race is a predictor of academic outcomes, including graduation rates. For simplicity, and because an overwhelming majority of student-athletes at major-conference schools are either black or white (as opposed to Hispanic or “other”; see Part 1), we will highlight the differences between black and white students. At Power-5 schools, black students graduate about 12% less often than white students (~65% vs. ~78%), and the difference is similar among student-athletes, where black athletes graduate 14% less often than white athletes (59% vs. 73%).

So, males graduate less often than females, and black students graduate less often than white students, both in the student body and among student-athletes. Importantly, these patterns of sex and race seem to be largely independent of one another: combinations of them in student-athletes give predictable results. White women graduate at the highest rates (80%), black men graduate at the lowest (60%), and black women and white men graduate somewhere between them (70% and 66%, respectively). Black men, then, possess two traits that are associated with decreased academic success: being black and being men.

In addition to sex and race, being an athlete is also linked to graduation rate. Overall, student-athletes graduate 69% of the time at major-conference schools, compared to a rate of 76% within the student body generally. Interestingly, though, being an athlete matters only in males. Female student-athletes graduate about as often as females in the student body (78% vs. 79%), while male student-athletes fare more poorly than male students generally (62% vs. 74%). This is consistent with the notion that participating in revenue-generating sports (i.e. football and men’s basketball) is most deleterious to athletes’ academic success, as the report notes.

Perhaps surprisingly, race impacts to what degree male athletes’ academics suffer, but not in the way that is typically implied. That is, being an athlete is associated with a bigger drop in graduation rate for white males than for black males. White, male student-athletes graduate about 10% less often than their counterparts in the student body (65.8% vs. 75.4%), while black, male student-athletes see a decrease of only 5% (55.2% vs. 60.1%). This is not the case for female student-athletes, who graduate at rates similar to other students generally, regardless of race (80% vs. 79% for white women, 70% vs. 69% for black women).

To be sure, the fact that black, male student-athletes graduate at rates similar to black males in the student body may simply reflect the fact that an especially large fraction of black males at many major universities are athletes. The report stresses this point, and we will address it more thoroughly in Part 3 of this series. However, it actually matters very little for our purposes here whether being an athlete has a greater effect on white males than on black males. Instead, we will focus on the narrow point that the effect on black males is not greater than on white males, as is often insinuated. In short, then, males who are athletes graduate less often than those who are not athletes, regardless of race, and the effect is no greater in black males than in white males.

So, sex, race, and participation in athletics can all translate to decreased graduation rates. Predictably, much of the media coverage associated with poor academic performance in college athletics stresses the single subgroup that is at the triple-intersection of these factors: the black, male student-athlete. This group possesses three traits that, unfortunately, correlate with decreased graduation rates, both independently and in various combinations.

Importantly, though, the combination of these traits is apparently not synergistic, but additive—it is merely the sum of the parts. For example, black, male athletes graduate 25% less often than other students who are not black, not male, and not athletes: namely, most of the white women in the general student body (55% vs. 80%). Interestingly, this 25% difference is consistent with the idea that the factors are strictly additive. In the student body generally, being black is associated with a 12% decrease in graduation rate compared to being white, being male is associated with a 5% decrease compared to being female, and being an athlete is associated with a 10% decrease in white males. It is remarkable that the sum of these three separate effects is 27%, which is similar to the 25% decrease we described above. Or, perhaps it is unremarkable: nothing extraordinary seems to happen when the three traits are combined, raising doubts about an inexplicable plight of black, male student-athletes per se.

Systematically reviewing the graduation rates of students and student-athletes based on sex, race, and athletic participation generally—rather than more narrowly reviewing the graduation rates of black males specifically, as the report does—allows us to reinterpret a common claim about race and academics in college athletics. The separate effects of being black, male, and an athlete are seen across all students, pointing away from a narrative with race in big-money athletics at its center. Instead, these effects point more plainly toward a narrative of several cumulative traits that are correlated with academic performance generally.

Of course, the low graduation rate among black, male student-athletes is unfortunate, but the data outline that it is unsurprising, and perhaps even predictable. If this is indeed the case, how can the report paint such an especially bleak picture of “shocking” statistics? The answer lies in the comparison groups, or lack of comparison groups, within the report. In the next installment of this series, we will further examine black, male athletes’ performances in the classroom, especially at other schools that do not play big-money athletics.



P. A. Jensen (@RuralityChecker), a former professor and college administrator, is editor of


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