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While graduation rates for Division I basketball players are about the same as the general student body, a USA Today survey indicates that the better the teams, the worse the students.

The newspaper's study of Division I schools showed that 46 percent of all players, men and women, graduated, compared with 48 percent for all students.At the same time, however, graduation rates for the Big Ten, Southeastern, Big Eight and Atlantic Coast conferences were more than 10 percentage points below the overall student bodies.

USA Today polled all 257 Divison schools for the survey. Seventy-six percent of the schools responded to the questionnaire, and the newspaper took one year to complete the study. The NCAA will publish schools' graduation rates later this year.

The study also showed:

- Only 36 percent of minority players earned degrees within five years, but that was better than minority students from the rest of the student body. The Department of Education reports that 31 percent of blacks and 33 percent of Hispanics graduate within five years.

- Women basketball players graduate at much higher rates, 60 percent, but there are signs that the rate drops as the basketball program becomes more serious.

- The Big West and Big Eight have the lowest player graduation rates. With 7 of the 10 schools reporting, the Big West had a graduation rate for players of 27 percent, the Big Eight 25 percent with 7 of 8 schools reporting.

While graduation rates for basketball players and the general student body are roughly equal, critics say that with free tutoring services, full scholarships and other benefits available, players should be graduating at a much higher rate.

The National Center for Educational Statistics points to a telling statistic. While basketball players must be fulltime students to be eligible to play, overall statistics include many students who are parttime with no intention of graduating. According to the center's statistics, of the 1980 high-school graduates who went to college fulltime for four straight years, 74 percent graduated.

Then, there are those on the other side.

"The presumption that everybody is going to college to get a degree is wrong to begin with," said Joe Beckham, director of the Institute for Studies in High Education at Florida State.

"Isn't it a flaw in all these reports of abysmal attrition rates to start with the presumption that athletes share the same academic goals as other students? . . . Is it fair to hold a university responsible for not satisfying a goal that never existed for student-athletes?"