College rankings and the athletic solution

This week's Chronicle of Higher Education has an article that cites four different studies, including one from preeminent higher education researcher and commentator Doug Toma, about the on-going pursuit of colleges and universities to improve their rankings within higher education by publications such as US News and World Report or the Princeton Review. The premise of the article and associated research is that the more colleges and universities pursue improved rankings, they are unlikely they are to achieve those improvements and that the attempted improvements come at a cost, namely the colleges and universities become more and more similar to each other.

The obvious question is what can these institutions do to enhance their prestige while remaining distinctive, notable and recognizable in a sea of homogeneity? I would suggest that intercollegiate athletic expansion is an opportunity worth investigating. While critics will contend that the dollars spent on athletics are excessive and disproportionate to their return on investment, I believe that in many cases the investment in athletics is justified.

Examples are many:
  • Another recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education cited in great detail the benefits to Adrian College in Michigan from expanding their athletic budget from $300,000 to $800,000 since 2005. The benefit: a 57% increase in undergraduate enrollment at the institution. With full time tuition, fees, room and board costing $31,000 per year, some back of the envelope math indicates a $15,000,000 return on the half million dollar investment.
  • In 2007, the Chronicle also published an article about community colleges taking the same steps as Adrian College - adding sports and expanding athletic offerings as a way to attract and retain students.
  • My own research, published in 1999, indicates that there are 6 reasons why a college or university will change their athletic classification - moving to NCAA Division I. These six benefits include:
  1. Increased undergraduate admission applications and matriculants.
  2. Improved town and gown relationships.
  3. Enhanced alumni and development opportunities with athletics as a rallying point.
  4. Financial improvement (in certain circumstances).
  5. Increased visibility and publicity - Newspaper and web presence as well as TV exposure in Division I on the ESPN and other sports tickers.
  6. Benefits of association - Conference membership gives people easily understood context about whom you associate with and to whom you are similar. You can be the best of the group and trumpet it or you can be the worst of the group but benefit from the glow that your peers may provide you.

This is not to suggest that athletics is a cure for every institution's woes, but as a distinguishing factor, it may well beat trying to climb the ladder over other institutions who are also trying to expand their library holdings and improve their faculty to student ratio.

Consider that according to the American Association of Colleges and Universities there are 2618 accredited four year institutions in the United States - and they all have a rank. But consider that there are only 342 NCAA Division I institutions. There are also 449 Division III institutions. Joining either of these groups instantly provides a level of credibility. Of the great institutions in the United States according the previously cited rankings, including 18 of the top 25 are NCAA Division I institutions and the other seven are in Division III.

So if you are a president of vice president at a tuition driven college or university, despite views to the contrary, an investment in a well conceived athletic program that is in consonance with the mission of your institution may be just the answer you have been seeking to improve the image and prestige of your institution. The added benefit is that this type of approach is more easily understood by ninety-five percent of the American public and tuition paying parents everywhere than studying the ranking methodologies of these publications for ways to improve their standing.

-ultimate sports insider