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NCAA Teams Will "Rise to Challenge" of Higher Academic Standards, Arne Duncan Says

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the NCAA today for raising their minimum academic standards. During a press call to discuss the academic progress of participants in the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, Duncan also fired a warning shot at programs lagging behind on graduation rates: "If they don't improve, you simply won't see them in the [NCAA] tournament."

"I'm a huge believer of college sports, not a critic," Duncan said, leading off. "There's no better way to teach life lessons than on the playing field or on the court."

Given Duncan's experience as a basketball player at Harvard, it's not exactly a surprise that he comes down in favor of college sports.

During the press call, Duncan wasn't shy about applauding NCAA President Mark Emmert and the rest of the Division I leadership in deciding to raise their academic standards for postseason eligibility last summer. He expects the move to have a positive impact on the graduation rates of NCAA men's basketball and football teams, since they'll be barred from competing in postseason play, otherwise.

He was also quick to point out that most programs competing in this year's NCAA tournament (both men's and women's) fell above the NCAA's new academic cutline. Only 13 men's teams and three women's teams had an academic progress rate below 930, according to the latest report from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida. (An APR of 930 would roughly equate to a 50 percent graduation rate for a team.)

"The vast majority of teams and programs have their priorities right," Duncan said. "They strike a healthy balance between athletics and academics."

Once the NCAA's new APR cutline goes into effect starting next year, Duncan expects behavior from the laggards to change "very rapidly."

"Where folks take this seriously, and build it as part of their institutional culture, really good things happen to student-athletes," Duncan said. "If folks want to play around the margins and not take it seriously, we can address that."

Joining Duncan on the call was Dr. Richard Lapchick of TIDES, the author of the institute's newest study. Dr. Lapchick was pleased to report that the gap in graduation rates between white male basketball players and African-American male basketball players had shrunk nearly 4 percent since last year, but he was quick to say that the near 30-point gap is still too significant.

"For me, the issue of race remains the most prominent issue," Dr. Lapchick said. "Not just for student-athletes, but for all students."

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