Submitted by: Michael J. Lovaglia & Jeffrey W. Lucas
Why are athletic programs such a prominent part of higher education in the United States? Lately, educators have been questioning the value of a connection between high-visibility athletic programs and the academic mission of higher education (Sperber 2003). Do high-visibility athletic programs add value to a university education?
We conducted a study to test the idea that high-visibility athletic programs at major public universities can increase the prestige of their academic programs. That is, a high-visibility athletic program may increase the value of a university’s degree, increasing the prestige of its graduates in general. If so, then increased university prestige may provide an explanation for the growth of university athletic programs and their prominent role in higher education.
As the budgets for high-visibility athletic programs at major universities grow ever larger, common explanations for the increase have not been supported by empirical evidence. The competition among university athletic programs has been likened to an “arms race” as major universities strive to avoid being left behind. Why universities continue to increase their athletic budgets, however, has been difficult to explain. Research fails to support the common assumption that the substantial revenue from ticket sales, TV contracts, and apparel endorsements brought in by high-visibility athletic programs helps to support their universities. Nor has it been demonstrated that bigger athletic budgets increase alumni donations.
The NCAA commissioned a study (Litan, Orszag and Orszag 2003) to investigate the effects of increasing budgets for university athletic programs. The study found little evidence for several common explanations for increasing athletic budgets. Rather than contribute revenue to general university operations, high visibility athletic programs are revenue neutral. That is, big-time university athletic programs cost their universities about as much money as they generate. Litan, Orzag and Orzag (2003) found that an additional dollar spent on a Division I-A football or basketball program produces about the same amount of increased revenue to the university. Moreover, winning programs are no more likely to contribute net revenue to the university than are losing programs (Sheehan 2000). In addition, Litan, Orzag and Orzag (2003) found no relationship between increased budgets and alumni contributions. Shulman and Bowen (2001, p. 257) examined in detail a wide variety of athletic programs at universities and colleges. They concluded, “Whatever the other benefits of athletic programs are, or are perceived to be, the pursuit of net revenues is very difficult to accept as a justification.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that winning athletic programs increase the number and quality of student applicants to universities. This justification for the growth in athletic budgets has been labeled the “Flutie effect” after a dramatic increase in student applications at Boston College in the years immediately following quarterback Doug Flutie’s Heisman Trophy. The spike in student applications was short-lived as applications returned to earlier levels along with the performance of the football team after Flutie’s graduation, further suggesting that the football team’s success was responsible for increased student applications. Further, increased student applications could affect academic quality by allowing universities selectively to admit better students. Thus, there could be a positive relationship between a university’s athletic success and its academic quality, at least theoretically. While Litan, Orzag and Orzag (2003) found no relationship between increased athletic expenditures and academic quality, considerable evidence supports the idea that athletic success increases student applications (Murphy and Trandel 1994, Zimbalist 1999).
We propose that students prefer universities with high-visibility athletic programs in part because they associate increased prestige with academic degrees from those schools. If so, then the prestige rank that students assign to value of academic degrees from major public universities will correspond to the visibility of the universities’ athletic programs.
PRESTIGE RANKING OF UNIVERSITIES
We asked undergraduate students in introductory classes at the University of Iowa to rank states based on the prestige of graduates from the states’ main public universities. Although to some extent a convenience sample, the wide variety of students who take introductory sociology are particularly appropriate for this study. Because they recently had to make a decision about which university to attend, it is likely that the relative prestige of various universities is more salient to them than to the average person. We do not expect that students are consciously aware of objective criteria for ranking state prestige. Rather, we created an indicator to assess the students’ general impressions of the prestige of various states with particular reference to contributions of their public university graduates to society:
“Please think about the main state university in each state. Then rank each state based on how important you feel its main state university is and how valuable the graduates of those universities are to the success of U.S. society.”
Students then examined a column of 19 states presented in alphabetical order. States were chosen to provide a range of universities from various regions and with athletic programs of varying visibility:
Alabama, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina
Athletics was not mentioned during the study. Rather, the study was presented as an investigation of how effectively states support higher education.
A total of 479 students ranked each state from 1 to 19 with 1 indicating the most valuable graduates and 19 the least valuable graduates. We calculated mean student rankings for each state and then used those means as one variable in a data set where each state represented one case.
RATING ATHLETIC PROGRAM VISIBILITY
Two coders familiar with university athletics rated the visibility of the athletic programs of the major university in each state on the list. The coders’ independent ratings were based on the following instructions:
Consider the main public university in each state. If a state has more than one major public university, pick the university with the most prominent athletic program. Then indicate the national visibility of that university’s athletic program using the following codes.
Rate the state university athletic program:
- 1 if it has a major football or basketball program familiar to most adults in the United States.
- 2 if it has a football or basketball program familiar to intercollegiate sports fans but not more generally.
- 3 if it has minimal visibility football and basketball programs.
The two coders’ ratings corresponded exactly for 14 of the 19 states. Ratings were averaged for the remaining 5 states.
OTHER STATE FACTORS THAT MIGHT AFFECT PRESTIGE
A number of state characteristics might influence the prestige of public university graduates. We gathered data from a U.S. Census Bureau website,
http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/, for the following variables:
- State Population Size (natural log): States with larger populations may seem more important and have more resources to devote to higher education, potentially leading to higher university prestige.
- State Per Capita Annual Income (in thousands of dollars): States with wealthier residents may seem more important and prestigious.
- Mean Higher Education Level (% of state residents over age 25 with at least a bachelor’s degree): Higher education may seem more prestigious in states with more highly educated citizens.
We also included variables to control for geographical region and the order in which states were presented to participants.
We predicted a positive relationship between the visibility of a state university’s athletic program and the prestige of that state university’s graduates. If high visibility athletic programs at public universities increase a state’s prestige, then the graduates of those universities should be highly ranked in terms of their importance to society.
Table 1 lists means and standard deviations for the variables used in the multivariate analysis.
<th”>Variable <th”>Mean <th”>SD
|Variables Used to Analyze State Prestige Rank, N = 19.|
|State Prestige Rank||8.63||3.99|
|Log State Population||15.49||.92|
|Income Per Capita ($1000’s)||20.79||3.14|
|% Highly Educated||22.63||3.93|
|Athletic Program Visibility
Table 2 presents the results of regression analysis with State Prestige Rank as the dependent variable.
<th”>Variable <th”>B <th”>SE <th”>p
|Regression Coefficients Predicting State Prestige Rank, N = 19.|
|Log State Population||-2.22||.68||.007|
|Income Per Capita ($1000)||– .30||.38||.455|
|% Highly Educated||– .40||.25||.138|
|Athletic Program Visibility||2.54||.91||.016|
R2 = .788
Adjusted R2 = .682
R2 was relatively high for an analysis of this type indicating that the predictor variables explain most of the variation in State Prestige Rank. A high R2 increases confidence that a missing variable is not a better predictor of State Prestige Rank than those included in the analysis.
Two of the control variables, Order Presented and Log State Population, had p-values that suggest a significant relationship with prestige. The order in which states appeared on the form presented to participants had a negative relationship with State Prestige Rank (B = -3.30). Log State Population also had a significant negative coefficient (B = -2.22) indicating that states with larger populations were ranked higher in prestige than those with smaller populations.
In support of the study’s main prediction, the coefficient for Athletic Program Visibility (B = 2.54) is positive and significant (p = .016) indicating that states with highly visible university athletic programs were rated as having university graduates who made more important contributions to society.
The results of our study supported the prediction that a high-visibility athletic program can enhance the prestige of a university’s graduates. The result is potentially important because it connects the visibility of university athletic programs to the prestige of their academic programs, a connection that has been seen as tenuous at best (Bowen and Levin 2003).
The study has limitations that should be noted. First, the prestige rankings for public universities are restricted to a sample of students at the University of Iowa. While the prestige of universities may be particularly salient to them, data from students at different universities as well as from non-students would improve confidence in the results. Second, the ranking exercise turned out to be cognitively challenging. The effect of presentation order suggests that more research is needed to determine how students went about the task. Third, several variables have too few categories to be considered properly continuous. The results, however, hold up well using alternative categorical analyses and non-parametric statistics sensitive to ranked data (available from the authors).
Why do high-visibility athletic programs enhance academic prestige? The idea seems counterintuitive. Certainly some the highest prestige universities in the United States, Harvard, Yale, and University of Chicago for example, do not emphasize their athletic programs. But it may not be the case that these high prestige institutions gain prestige from their neglect of high-visibility athletics. Rather, they may have had a historical prestige advantage that allowed them to opt out of the athletic arms race. Perhaps because of their position as elite academic institutions, they can afford not to compete athletically.
- Bowen, W.G. and S. A. Levin. 2003. Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Litan, R. E., J. M. Orszag and P. R. Orszag (2003). The Empirical Effects of Collegiate Athletics: An Interim Report. National Collegiate Athletic Association.
- Murphy, R. G., G. T. Trandel (1994). “The relation between a university’s football record and the size of its applicant pool.” Economics of Education Review, 13, 383-387.
- Shulman, J. L. and W. G. Bowen (2001). The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Sperber, M. 2000. Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education. New York: Henry Holt.
- Zimbalist, A. (1999). Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.