Education secretary: Fine NCAA coaches for low graduation rates

Education Secretary Arne Duncan suggested in an op-ed published Thursday that colleges could improve graduation rates for marquee athletic programs, including basketball and football, by fining coaches when players don't graduate.

"If universities and colleges want to readjust a coach's priorities, they need to change the penalties and incentives they offer coaches," Duncan and co-author Tom McMillen wrote in USA Today.

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The op-ed comes as the NCAA began its Final Four college basketball tournament on Thursday.

But the pair warn that the current model of big-time college sports is "neither economically sustainable nor morally defensible" and advocate "a healthier balance between academics and athletics."

"Governing boards and college presidents can take steps to right that imbalance," they wrote. "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."

McMillen, a regent at the University of Maryland, studied contracts for head coaches of top college football and basketball programs and found that incentives for athletic achievements consistently outranked those for academic success — by an average margin of nearly $550,000.

"But no coach should receive financial bonuses when much of his team is flunking out or failing to get a degree," the pair argued.

The NCAA, which governs college athletics, in 2011 voted to ban Division I athletic programs from postseason play if their graduation rates fell below a certain threshold. Schools can also suffer the loss of athletic scholarships.