THE BLOG
03/26/2015 12:32 pm ET Updated May 26, 2015

March Madness: A Game Plan for Higher Education and College Athletes

"March Madness" is here, and the ride -- for participating NCAA Division I colleges and universities, and for college basketball fans -- can be exhilarating, thrilling, exhausting and tense, all in the same game.

But what happens to these players off the court?

A few quit college after their first or second year to play professional sports. These are the standouts the public hears about. Some students don't make the cut and drop out of school. What people might not know, however, is that the graduation rate for Division I student-athletes overall is statistically the same as that of the Division I student population.

Sixty-six percent of Division I student-athletes graduate within six years, compared with 65 percent of the general Division I population, according to the NCAA, citing federal data. And due at least in part to intensive efforts by the universities and the NCAA, student-athletes of color by some measures do relatively well in the academic arena. The graduation rate for African-American male student-athletes is 11 percentage points higher than for African-American males in the general population (52 percent and 41 percent, respectively), while the rate for African-American females who are student-athletes is 13 percentage points higher than African-American females overall (63 percent vs. 50 percent).

Certainly, there's more work to do. Overall, the six-year graduation rate for white students at NCAA Division I schools is about 20 percentage points higher than for African Americans -- a rate that has held relatively steady for more than two decades. That's a huge gap, and one that must be closed.

Yet the student-athlete data is significant when you consider that in the 2009-2010 academic year, 86 percent of college athletes lived below the poverty line. Given the strong relationship between poverty and poor academic achievement, you have to wonder what has helped change the tide, and life trajectories, for many student-athletes.

One example is the NCAA's Accelerating Academic Success Program, a multimillion-dollar effort that works with participating colleges and universities, student-athletes, students of color and families challenged by poverty to boost academic achievement and college graduation rates.

The NCAA and participating universities recognize that a college degree is extremely precious for the graduating student. The American worker with a four-year college degree earns about 75 percent more than a worker with a high-school diploma, according to Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in their 2014 book Think Like a Freak.

Yet a college degree also has broader value. Levitt and Dubner take the next step: "What sort of signal does a college diploma send to a potential employer? That its holder is willing and able to complete all sorts of drawn-out, convoluted tasks -- and, as a new employee, isn't likely to bolt at the first sign of friction." 

In a few words, the authors nail one of the most important outcomes of higher education: Effort and resilience play a significant role in deep learning, whether the student is processing information and synthesizing it into a new product, skill, thought or application, or competing at the highest level of college athletics.  

All of us -- student-scholar, student-athlete and adult -- have similar cognitive capacities, and unique talents and gifts awaiting development. Helping student-athletes understand how the brain works should enable them to view the brain as something that can be strengthened and optimized, like the body. Through hard work and training, academic skills can develop in tandem with physical abilities. The genius of the athlete is akin to the genius of a musician, actor, scientist, or artist. As breathtaking as the skills of an athlete are, so too are the achievements of academics and lifelong learners.

Helping more college students get four-year degrees and a jump on lifelong learning is a smart game plan. By tailoring education to the unique strengths every student brings to classrooms, setting boundless expectations, and providing appropriate support, all students can perform at the highest levels, developing a "pedagogy of confidence" that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

Now that's a winning strategy. 

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org. He tweets as @ECooper4556.