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Intercollegiate athletic programs' effect on university enrollment, fundraising

This is an excerpt from Social Issues in Sport, Second Edition, by Ronald B. Woods, PhD.

Positive and Negative Effects of Intercollegiate Sport

As we’ve seen, it is impossible to lump all college athletic programs together since they vary widely. For the purpose of this section, we will divide our analysis into two primary groups: colleges offering athletic programs that are modest in expense and intensity, representing around 800 colleges and universities, versus the group of roughly 300 highly competitive programs at schools where athletics follows a corporate structure, classified as Division I-FBS or I-FCS by the NCAA.

Pressure to Generate Income for the University

Major college sport programs are run as corporate businesses that pay no taxes. Typically, the university expects them to at least be revenue neutral, or break even. Of course, that means many schools have to secure an invitation to postseason play in order to earn the dollars guaranteed from bowl games or basketball play-offs to achieve a balanced budget.

Whether the budget is actually balanced is a source of discussion at many schools. It is often difficult to calculate the total expense for the athletic program when administrators assign various costs to other units of the college. For example, facilities are often charged to the state or other building funds; student activity fees support fitness and weight rooms; and stadiums are built or renovated using other development funds.

Whatever the cost, the expectations over the years at many notable universities have included outstanding athletic teams, particularly in the major sports. You only have to check the last few years’ football bowl games and NCAA basketball tournaments to compose a list of the top 50 schools that traditionally vie for national recognition.

Schools that support Division I athletic programs either at the FBS or FCS level often justify their expenditures by pointing out that high-profile winning programs generate volumes of publicity for the university, contribute to school spirit among students, and increase donations from alumni and other prominent supporters.

Taking this one step further, some schools claim that based on the success of their athletic teams, more students apply for admission, allowing them to select the very best of prospective applicants. In other words, successful sport teams also improve the academic level of the school.

Although several studies reviewed by Frank (2004) suggest that these results are not likely, most of us know that generally people are drawn to winning programs. (See the next section on athlete recruitment for more on this study.) We also can point to examples such as the University of Connecticut. In the mid-1990s, the University of Connecticut (UConn) was a modest regional institution that sought to be the finest university in New England. Not content with that modest goal, a few visionaries set higher standards to raise the profile of UConn to a nationally recognized university. The state legislature funded over $1 billion in new construction, transforming a utilitarian state university into an attractive modern campus. Next came success in men’s and women’s basketball, culminating in a national championship for both teams in 2004. UConn was on the map, and everyone in the country knew where it was. The football team upgraded to Division I-BCS and in 2004 received its first postseason bowl bid to the Motor City Bowl in Detroit, where it defeated the University of Toledo to conclude with a record of 8-4.

You might wonder if there is a correlation between all of this campus improvement, publicity, and sport success. The SAT scores for admission at UConn have increased steadily in recent years. What used to be a safety school for state residents suddenly became the place to go. Can you think of other schools where a similar phenomenon has occurred? A few examples come to mind of schools that were virtually unknown before the exploits of one of their athletic teams thrust them into the public spotlight, if only briefly. Consider schools like Boise State, Gonzaga, University of South Florida, and University of Nevada at Las Vegas. An upset win on the football field or in the NCAA basketball tournament suddenly pushes schools onto the national stage.

Athlete Recruitment

William Bowen, former president of Princeton University, and Sarah Levin published a book, Reclaiming the Game (2003), in which they document the results of athletic recruitment and college outcomes of athletes compared to nonathletes at 33 highly selective academic institutions. Relying on data from Ivy League schools, Seven Sister colleges, and other prestigious universities, Bowen and Levin expose the negative sides of college sport at schools that do not even offer athletic scholarships.

Some of the negative findings include the fact that athletes are four times as likely to gain admission to college as other students with comparable academic credentials. The data also showed that athletes are substantially more likely to be in the bottom third of their college class than students who do not play sports. Recruited athletes also tend to underperform academically in college compared to the predictions based on their test scores and high school grades. Of course, these are not the schools we think of when we think big-time college sport. It is rare when a team from Princeton, Harvard, or Yale contends at the national level.

In 2004, Robert Frank of Cornell presented a report to the prestigious Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. The report included an assessment of the effect of winning teams on applicants and on alumni donations. Citing a review of six studies conducted between 1987 and 2003, Frank reported that although there appeared to be several instances of small gains in admissions as measured by higher SAT scores, the increases were minor and not statistically significant. He also mentioned the popular example of Boston College reporting a 12% gain in applicants after Doug Flutie chucked a miracle pass to win the 1984 Orange Bowl.

Frank also reviewed more than a dozen studies that measured the effect of athletic success on alumni donations. Although most studies showed little effect at statistically significant levels, one study did show that appearances at football bowl games and basketball tournaments do positively affect donations. Frank’s conclusion, however, was that there is little empirical evidence to support the contention that it takes a winning team or program to secure alumni donations.

Intercollegiate Athletics Reform

Historically, the Carnegie Commission for the Advancement of Teaching warned of the abuses in college athletics back in 1929. The commission cited corrupt recruiting practices, professionalism of athletes, commercialism, and neglected education. Sadly, those same issues are being debated today in spite of numerous efforts to reform college sport.

One of the most comprehensive analyses of intercollegiate sport was conducted by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics (2001) beginning in the early 1990s. The analysis was conducted because the foundation’s board of trustees felt that athletics were threatening the integrity of higher education. Some of the problems the commission cited as justification for its research were as follows:

  • In the 1980s, 109 colleges were censured or put on probation by the NCAA. That included more than half of the Division I-FBS schools, or 57 out of 106.
  • Nearly a third of present and former professional football players said they had accepted illicit payments while in college, and more than half said they saw nothing wrong with this.
  • Of the 106 institutions in Division I-FBS, 48 had graduation rates under 30% for male basketball players, and 19 had the same low rate for football players.

It seems there is a new scandal involving big-time sport programs nearly every month. Football and men’s basketball are the magnets for most of the scrutiny and deservedly so. They’re the big-money sports, and temptations loom for athletes, coaches, and administrators.

The work of the Knight Commission, an independent group of college presidents, university trustees, and former collegiate athletes, continued through the 1990s, and the effect of that work is ongoing. Various reports on the study have been widely circulated in the media and pressed into the hands of college presidents and boards of trustees. Essentially, the Knight Commission advocated a one-plus-three model for reform that requires presidential control directed toward academic integrity, financial integrity, and independent certification that universities are meeting the standards set for athletic programs. The commission’s view was that reform of college sport will never be achieved to everyone’s satisfaction; it is an ongoing process that needs continuous work.

Although the Knight Commission has no formal authority, by 2003 the NCAA had adopted almost two-thirds of its recommendations. Most notable was the overhaul of the governance structure of the NCAA, which put college presidents in charge rather than athletic directors. That way, if reform initiatives were to fail, it would be patently clear who should shoulder the blame.

The conclusion of the commission is that in spite of the changes to rules, the enforcement efforts of the NCAA, and the leadership of college presidents, the threat of college athletics operating without supervision or accountability to university leaders has increased rather than diminished. The commission calls on all members of the higher education community to unite to address the problems and clean up college athletics. The Knight commission continues to monitor the troubling issues in collegiate sports and advocate for policies that are consistent with the universities’ educational missions.

One reformist group that has taken up the gauntlet is the Drake Group (TDG). Based out of Drake University in Iowa, TDG is an alliance of college faculty members at various institutions who propose seven reforms (Drake Group 2009):

  1. Athletes must maintain a cumulative 2.0 grade point average each semester.
  2. Institute a one-year residency requirement before an athlete can participate in college athletics (no freshman eligibility).
  3. Replace one-year renewable scholarships with need-based financial aid or with multi-year athletic scholarships that extend to graduation (five years maximum).
  4. Establish university policies that emphasize the importance of class attendance for all students and ensure that the scheduling of athletics contests does not conflict with class attendance.
  5. Retire the term “student-athlete.”
  6. Make the location and control of academic counseling and support services for athletes the same as for all students.
  7. Ensure that universities provide accountability of trustees, administrators, and faculty by public disclosure of such things as a student’s academic major, academic adviser, courses listed by academic major, general education requirements, electives, course GPA, and instructor.

Interestingly, TDG has spent relatively little time working on college campuses mobilizing faculty members but instead has spent much of its time and resources lobbying members of Congress, pursuing court cases in support of whistle-blowers, and trying to affect the general public’s perception of college athletics.

A different organization, the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics (COIA), has taken a much different approach although its aims are similar to those of TDG. Born out of faculty senates, COIA has worked closely with the NCAA and college establishment groups to promote reform from within the college athletics family. COIA is an alliance of 52 Division I-FBS university faculty senates whose aim is to reform collegiate sports.

In response to the work of these two faculty groups, NCAA president Myles Brand in 2005 established a 50-member task force composed primarily of Division I university presidents and chancellors to lead college sport into its second century. One of the initial conclusions of that group was that collegiate sport reform, though it needs national leadership, ultimately must be implemented at the local campus level. Further, there must be leadership from the college president at the campus level and institutional accountability for the conduct of intercollegiate athletics there.

Since then, subcommittees have presented working papers on the topics of general information, fiscal responsibility, academic values and standards, relationships with internal and external constituencies, and student-athlete well-being.

As these various groups press on to consider reform in intercollegiate athletics, other factors have recently come into play. The economic crisis beginning in 2007 has exposed the problems of ever-escalating costs of all intercollegiate programs and forced some degree of fiscal sanity. It is likely that these discussions for reform will continue as long as intercollegiate athletics exist. The road to this point has been arduous and is likely to continue to be paved with criticism, second-guessing, and “Monday morning quarterbacking.”

Although there is not at this time a full-scale reform movement that is well organized or funded, the signs of a gathering storm are there. In general, the fight is against an increasingly commercialized and professional monopoly of college sport. As a training ground for a small proportion of eventual professional athletes, big-time college sport is simply a minor league.

Critics of the NCAA assert that while it talks about cleaning up college sport abuses, it simply goes about its business, perpetuating the status quo (Splitt 2004). It thus falls to various reform groups to pressure college presidents, boards of trustees, the public, and the media to call for reform (Lipsyte 2003).

Perhaps the most important step is simply to educate everyone on the facts of the matter. One group, founded by Richard Lapchick at Northeastern University, is the Institute for the Study of Sport and Society. Lapchick has now moved on to the University of Central Florida and has established a similar center there. His contribution has been to publish statistics on the graduation rates of college athletes, on race and correlates with graduation, on minority coach proportions, and on gender equity issues (Lapchick 2008).

Learn more about Social Issues in Sport, Second Edition.

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