March Gradness? Duncan Calls on NCAA to Boost Academics

Apparently, March Madness presents an opportunity to make some very important points about higher education, and now U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan – in an editorial published on ed.gov – is getting in on the act and upbraiding the NCAA for failing to maintain a healthy balance between academics and sports in the colleges and universities it oversees.

Barring University of Connecticut from the post-season because of its inadequate academic showing should be only the first step, Duncan argues, and similar efforts are needed in order to make “student-athlete” more than a meaningless buzzword.

Although the NCAA has taken a meaningful first step by raising the minimum academic benchmarks for participation in the post-season, it must work together with school leaders to make sure that these benchmarks are taken seriously and colleges and universities don’t just pay lip service to learning being their first priority. The good news that even with the new tougher standards – half of the players on the team must be on track towards graduation to participate in the NCAA tournament – the compliance among participating teams is up this year.

Tom (McMillen) recently examined around 50 contracts for head coaches of college football and basketball, many of them culled from the USA TODAY Sports coaches’ salary database. Most of what he found will surprise no one: Salaries and rewards for big-time college coaches are astronomically high. In 2011, 32 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision coaches and 11 NCAA Division I men’s basketball coaches earned more than $2 million annually. The highest paid basketball coach that year, Rick Pitino, was paid $7.5 million by the University of Louisville — a little more than $20,500 a day.

Many coaches – who are sometimes not only the best-paid employees in the university but in the whole state – have bonuses for athletic performance written into their contracts. Yet substantially fewer have similar kinds of financial incentives for making sure that their players are performing well academically and are likely to graduate. While contracts had academic performance clauses written into them, they paid out much less when hit than a typical performance benchmark. On average, financial incentives associated with academic performance were about $52,000. Athletic incentives were an average of $600,000 per coach.

We are not suggesting any regulatory scheme for capping or restricting coaches’ compensation. Nor can we specify the balance between athletic and academic spending that, to paraphrase the Goldilocks principle, is just right. What we can say is that this balance is plainly out-of-whack with the educational mission of many Division I universities.

Governing boards and college presidents can take steps to right that imbalance. They could adopt a model of “best practices” that includes greater parity in new contracts for coaches between academic and athletic bonuses and provides penalties for poor academic performance.