06/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Graduated Incomes

"I never let my schooling interfere with my education." ~ Mark Twain

Lately, Arne Duncan, our nation's Secretary of Education, has been rapping the knuckles of colleges that graduate ridiculously low numbers of student athletes. Citing the latest study by the University of Central Florida, Duncan suggests that basketball teams which fail to graduate 40 percent of their players should be banned from postseason play. The study calculated the rate of graduation within six years for the four classes that enrolled from 1999 to 2003.

If a Duncan Rule had been in place before the 2010 NCAA tournament, 12 of the 64 teams would have been barred, including the top seed, the University of Kentucky, which, over that four-year span, awarded diplomas to 31 percent of its players. The University of Maryland finished at the bottom of the pile: it graduated a measly eight percent.

Terps coach Gary Williams reacted to Duncan's suggestion like a schoolboy who'd been sucker-punched during recess. Nine of his last 11 seniors had graduated, he protested, and all four on the current team.

"In that period, we had four players leave early to go to the pros," he said. "They are all still playing professionally. They haven't come back and gotten their degrees yet. Hopefully they will. But they've made millions and millions of dollars during the time that they left. In other words, they didn't have their degree, but it all depends how you measure success in your life."

Are graduation rates important? I think so. I also think players should be legitimate students -- not just chair warmers - who, in the words of Martin Luther King, learn to "think intensively and to think critically." The fundamental aim of liberal education is the cultivation of human powers.

I agree with Duncan that graduation rates should have a direct bearing on a school's NCAA tournament eligibility. But the rates should be even higher than the figure he tossed out. Why not set the graduation bar 50 percent, and gradually raise it to 70 percent?

A stretch? Not really. Graduating half the players on a team is a lot easier than it sounds. And besides, isn't the enduring goal of higher education to send students into the world proud and confident and ready for anyone and anything?

My own 50 percent figure would exempt freshman and sophomores picked in the pro draft. As long as elite high school players like John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins are forced to wait a year in college before they can join the NBA, there are no "meaningful" alternatives. No school should be punished if its players leave for the pros after a year or two. That's their career path. Duncan's focus should be the education of non-elite players for whom a degree would help ensure a productive post-collegiate life. College diplomas really do improve quality of life, if only by expanding options. Plenty of players would love to become high school or college coaches, but can't because they lack a degree.

Every year around 1,400 Division 1 players are eligible for the NBA draft. At the same time, of the 60 players that the NBA teams picks, only 45 or so are offered guaranteed contracts. Of those, 10 are usually foreign players. Which leaves 35 U.S. college players who are assured of some kind of paycheck. Too many college players I meet cling to the unrealistic dream of making the NBA. Many colleges - and I'm not referring to the Dukes, the Stanfords or the Villanovas -- do not exactly set players straight about their pro prospects. To me, this is unconscionable.

Tellingly, the NCAA seems more concerned with enlarging its $6 billion TV pie by increasing the tourney field to 96. Though NCAA officials continue to dodge the issue, the proposed expansion would force participating players to miss an entire week of classes.

In the eyes of most of the colleges jockeying for pieces of the NCAA's TV contract, basketball players are just free labor. The most exploited of these laborers are African American. The UCF study found that 79 percent of the teams in this year's NCAA tournament graduated at least 70 percent of their white athletes, while just 31 percent of the teams in the field graduated at least 70 percent of their black players.

Too many colleges use African Americans to help get them to the Big Dance and then discard them without providing the skills to better their lives. Schools argue that it's the responsibility of the players to take advantage of their time on campus. But who's kidding whom? The main priority of these kids is basketball. They need help and guidance to maximize their opportunities. If a school accepts athletic prodigies as students, it should be held accountable to educate them.

Arne Duncan, our own Wizard of Ed, laments the growing epidemic of players who drop out college with no skills, no prospects, no future.

He's right. We should have zero tolerance for Munchkin-sized graduation rates. For most athletes who leave school early, it's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.