The LEAP Challenge Blog

The Butler Educational Phenomenon: Why the Bulldogs Are Winners, No Matter What Happens Tonight

Much has already been written about the unlikely success of the Butler Bulldogs in the NCAA tournament.  For such a small school from a minor conference, making it to the finals of the NCAA tournament is, indeed, an unlikely and remarkable phenomenon—and a tribute to the hard work of the Butler coach and his players.  It is also worth noting, however, that both Duke and Butler provide academically rigorous programs for all their students, including for their athletes.  They both can boast about their 90-percent-plus graduation rates as well.

Butler’s leaders have been working hard in recent weeks to help everyone see that the Butler phenomenon is as much an educational phenomenon as it is an athletic one.    See, for instance, the wonderful profile of Butler’s president in the New York Times, with its headline focus on educational excellence. (Full disclosure: both Butler and Duke are members of AAC&U, and Butler’s president, Bobby Fong, is on AAC&U’s board of directors).

It is worth pointing out a few facts, about both money and the Butler program.  While both Duke and Butler provide all their students a high level of academic rigor, Duke’s basketball budget is around $13.8 million as compared to Butler’s $1.7 million.  Duke’s overall endowment is also much larger than Butler’s.  So, a special nod to Butler—and many other smaller, less well-endowed schools –for what it is doing educationally for its student athletes.

No matter what happens tonight, no one should forget that players on the winning team will be winners educationally as well as athletically.  Butler offers all its students the best kind of rigorous liberal education—precisely the kind of education that will prepare its students for the challenges of the twenty-first-century global economy.  And so does Duke, which helped shape the basic outlines of AAC&U’s work on LEAP through its own leadership in setting expected learning outcomes for a twenty-first-century liberal education.

Parents of prospective athletes should ask probing questions of any college about its commitment to educational excellence.  As Butler leaders put it to AAC&U in a private e-mail last week, “rigorous academics and outstanding athletics are compatible, and you do not have to break the bank to have both.”  They note, further, that “any [prospective Butler athlete] must first pass muster with admissions,” and they have “turned down some very promising athletes because the kids just did not have the background to survive academically [at Butler].”  Butler leaders also note that their “alumni understand that [their] commitment is to prepare kids for life beyond Butler and beyond sports.”  Butler also gives its athletes no special treatment.  They room in the same dorms with everyone else.  They have no special tutors and there are no restrictions on majors.  Recent athlete graduates have included a chemistry major (now in medical school), a dental student, several engineers, and an actuary.  Two current team members are academic all-Americans—Gordon Hayward, a math/computer engineering major, and Matt Howard, a finance major.

Thanks to both institutions for modeling what really matters in college—for athletes and nonathletes alike.