So I'm going to expand on a comment I made in Dave's post, which by the way I enjoyed and suggest you read if you haven't already.
My point is that I agree that the hooplah about the graduation rates, particularly as applies to the University of Maryland, is overplayed---I will also say that a line has to be drawn somewhere and yes, I applaud the U.S. Dept. of Education for at least having an interest.
Last year, religious (and I mean truly religious) readers will remember that I posted about UConn's Stanley Robinson who, although being allowed to play for UConn all year long, had not been enrolled in classes for the preceding half year and had been working in construction instead making 20 dollars an hour. Closer to my hometown of Buffalo, NY it's remembered that St. Bonaventure got put on probation for allowing a player who had a welding degree in the place of a high school diploma to play.
These stories underlie the real thing that I think U.S. Sec. of Education Duncan is trying to combat--namely schools who are solely committed to fielding the best basketball team possible no matter what it means for the academic integrity of their program. It's a goal that I wholeheartedly applaud. Schools like Kentucky are pushing the rest of the NCAA in a race to the bottom in terms of academic standards as other schools feel as if they too have to bend the rules to land stud recruits with less than stellar academic prospects. Ultimately it threatens the integrity of the sport, which is supposed to be about student athletes, not just athletes. There are professional leagues where we can see the best athletes that money can buy regardless of their other skills in life. Part of the allure of college athletics is that the players are also students who are part of an academic community with their fans. Part of why you love Greivis is because he studied in McKeldin for finals just like you did, he walked across campus for a 9am final hopped up on coffee from the Student Union Starbucks just like everyone else. To take the "student" out of the equation would threaten to remove this intimate connection fans feel with their school's athletes.
Where I think that Sec. Duncan has made a mistake, is to take the graduation rates to be an accurate barometer of how serious a school takes academics relative to winning. The methodological flaws have been pointed out ad naseum so I won't go into them here--suffice it to say that the graduation rates are arguably not even reflective of a schools true success in graduating players, and certainly aren't reflective of the school's current success graduating players.
Moreover graduation rates themselves, however current and however accurate, are not good barometers of how seriously a school takes its academics. I'd favor a more holistic approach that looks at stuff like the high school grades of a school's recruits (both the ones they land and the ones the make firm offers to), class attendance, major selection, amount of money spent on academic support for student athletes, and yes graduation rates.
It may be that it's too hard to fairly and objectively rate the schools using a holistic approach. I'm sure it's at the very least likely to be much, much harder to rate the schools on a more holistic scale than it is on a straight up graduation rate scale.
And then there are other more, heavy handed approaches out there as well, such as requiring coaches to hold an advanced degree or to pursue an advanced degree, requiring coaches to actually be a member of the faculty, and preventing coaches from earning more than the highest paid member of the faculty that I wouldn't mind seeing along side of a comprehensive grading system.
I'm glad that Sec. Duncan has an interest, now I'd just like to see him do more than scratch the surface.