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Study Challenges Link Among Sports, Applications, and Donations

September 9, 2004

Success in big-time athletics has little if any effect on a college’s alumni donations or on the academic quality of its applicants, a leading economist concludes in a new study. The study, Challenging the Myth:  A Review of the Links Among College Athletic Success, Student Quality, and Donations, was commissioned by the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

In response to the findings, study author and professor of management and economics at Cornell University Robert H. Frank suggests that “groups of institutions that compete against each other in sports could jointly agree to cut back on sports spending ... without reducing either donations by alumni or applications by prospective students.”

According to NCAA reports, costs for college sports programs are on the rise, and most athletic departments spend more than they take in. One explanation offered for the increased expenditures is that most institutions believe they will receive indirect benefits from their teams’ success, like increased donations from alumni or a better pool of applicants that will help them move up in the national college rankings. However, a review of existing research by the study's author conducted between 1981 and 2003 found that the empirical literature did not support that view.

Two series of existing studies were reviewed, including the August 2003 study commissioned by the NCAA. In the first series of studies, which addressed the link between athletic success and student applications, Frank examined the common assumption that bigger athletic programs attract more students because of the universal appeal of sports as well as the national advertising that successful sports programs receive. College officials often cite the 30 percent increase in applications that Boston College experienced after Doug Flutie led the college's football team to victory in the 1984 Orange Bowl as proof of this phenomenon.

The new study concluded that “vivid episodes” like the Flutie factor notwithstanding, “the existing empirical literature suggests that success in big-time athletics has little, if any, systematic effect on the quality of incoming freshmen an institution is able to attract (as measured by average SAT scores).” Based on the empirical literature, he found that even if the overall net effect of athletic success on student recruitment is positive, it is likely to be small.

Frank also explored a second set of studies examining the link between teams’ performance and donations. College officials commonly cite the flow of alumni and other donations as a reason for sustaining or expanding sports programs. The new study concluded that the empirical literature indicated that if the overall net effect of athletic success on giving was positive, it was likely to be small.