Study Shows Athletic Success Impacts Academics Positively

Last Updated on June 5, 2014

A recent article in the Journal of Sports Economics co-authored by economists Devin and Jaren Pope has confirmed what many anecdotally believed to be true:  success in Division I men’s basketball or FBS football leads to increased interest from potential high school applicants.  The article, titled “Understanding College Application Decisions: Why College Sports Success Matters”, shows that between 1991 and 2001 the number of SAT scores sent by high school students increased for a 1-2 year period after a school’s men’s basketball team made the NCAA men’s basketball tournament or its football team ended the season in the AP Top 20.  Where students sent SAT scores is used as a proxy for where students actually sent applications.

And, as would be expected, the number of SAT scores received was higher for the schools which were most successful in the basketball tournament or finished higher in the AP football poll.  Schools received 2.2% more SAT scores when their men’s basketball teams made the NCAA tournament, 3.8% more if it made the Sweet 16, 5.7% more if it made the Final Four, and 9% more if it won the national championship.  A top 20 finish for the football team resulted in a 2% increase, a top 10 finish resulted in a 5.2% increase, and a (pre-BCS) national championship resulted in an 11% increase.

Besides proving that successful men’s basketball and football programs do play a part in some high school student’s college decisions, the article bring up another issue:  the allure of maintaining a Division I men’s basketball program and/or a FBS football program.  Most schools are looking for ways to increase their applicant pool and to expand their brand.  If a school is not in Division I for basketball or FBS in football, it is missing out on one of the ways to do these things.

In fact, there may not be an easier way for a school looking to grow enrollment and its brand than through success in men’s basketball and football.  This is demonstrated by one of the most amazing statistics in the Pope’s article: the effect of making it to the Final Four in basketball or the top ten in football is approximately equivalent to the effect of a school improving its academic rank by half (e.g. 100th to 50th or 50th to 25th)!  I have no idea how hard it is for a school to improve its academic rank by half, but I have to assume it’s a difficult task.  In many cases, it may be easier for a school to make its way into the top ten in FBS football than to improve its academic rank by half.

Let’s look at Old Dominion University as an example.  After a 68 year hiatus, ODU football took the field again in 2009.  It played as an independent FCS team during its first two seasons.  In 2011, the ODU football team became a full member of the Colonial Athletic Association football conference.  ODU finished that year second in the CAA (regarded as the SEC of FCS football conferences), hosted and won a FCS playoff game, and finished 10th in the final FCS poll.  All of this was accomplished in three seasons.  And it gained ODU entrance into the FBS (ODU will become a member of Conference USA in 2013), where it has the chance of finishing in the AP top ten.

While there is no guarantee that ODU will ever make the top ten in football, its chances of doing so before it improves its academic rank by half seem good.  We can look to Boise State as an example of what is possible.  Boise State moved up to what is now the FBS in 1996.  It first finished in the AP’s top 10 in 2006, when it was ranked number 5 after its memorable Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma.[1] Boise has finished in the AP top 10 three times since then (2009, 2010, and 2011).  So, it took Boise 10 years to make its way from FBS newbie to top ten finisher.

Can ODU improve its academic ranking by half in ten years?  Not likely.  In the latest US News rankings ODU received a “Rank Not Published” (RNP) designation in the National Universities category, signifying it resides outside of the top 200.  Let’s be generous and assume that ODU’s rank is 201.[2]  That means it would have to improve its ranking to 100 to see the same type of application bump that comes along with a top ten FBS football finish.  Again, I don’t have any data on how quickly a school can improve its academic ranking, but I have to assume it would take longer than 10 years to move from 201 to 100.  Perhaps the Pope brothers can look into this next.


For a look at how the study could predict multi-million losses for Arkansas thanks to their defeat at the hands of Louisiana-Monroe, check out this piece on by founder, Kristi Dosh.

[1] Statue of Liberty, anyone?

[2] This bit of generosity is hard for me.  I played basketball at William and Mary, which is in the CAA with ODU.  Let’s just say that the alumni/fan bases aren’t too fond of each other.


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1 Comment
  • Jeff Roy
    September 21, 2012

    I’m not sure how to take this article. On the surface, it is an apologia for the overemphasis on college sports success.

    But if you read between the lines, what the Pope brothers are saying collegiate athletics pays if you make it to the top. What does that say for all the schools that have not made it there, and never will?

    Here in Houston, Rice University has competing factions that both support and oppose Division I participation. Other than baseball, the rest of the sports teams are barely competitive in C-USA. The basketball program is bleeding transfers, and if they dropped back to FBS football status few would care. And the impact on both their academic standing and enrollment would be nonexistent.

    I have not read the paper, but have downloaded it and hope to read it at some point. But the period referenced in the study, 1991-2001, is so long ago it could render its conclusions as outdated. The hope that ODU ever reaches the AP top 10 is quixotic, to say the least. The pragmatism of using sports as a potential loss leader to improve the standing of your institution is testimony to the oversized role it plays in the eyes of the shortsighted.

    But the genie is out of the bottle, or whatever cliché might apply. Ultimately the divide between the profitable programs and the rest will become as wide as that between the minor leagues in baseball and what their players call “The Show.”