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Success on the field, court linked to admissions applications

Story by Chris Graham

Listen to “The SportsDominion Show” to hear Virginia Tech professor Jaren Pope discuss the tie between college-sports success and admissions. Show Length: 8:35.

pope_cr.jpgYou hear college and university administrators say it often.

We want to win on the field, but it’s more important that we win in the classroom.

And you snicker, seeing how they spend millions on winning games on the field that translate to millions in revenues for their schools.

That’s really what it’s all about. Right?

It’s not about winning in the classroom.

Well, not so fast.

Research conducted by Virginia Tech economics professor Jaren Pope is shedding new light on one link between success in the athletic arena and the classroom.

“We found that both basketball and football success significantly increased the number of applications to colleges. We’re talking a 2 to 8 percent increase for the top 20 football schools each year in the next two or three years after they’ve had that success, and the same sort of impact, a 2 to 8 percent increase, for about the top 16 basketball schools each year,” said Pope, whose findings will be published in the upcoming edition of the Southern Economic Journal.

So schools in this year’s Sweet 16 – sadly, no Virginia teams are among that elite, though George Mason University was there (on its way to the even more elite Final Four) in 2006 – can count on increases in its applicant pool next year and at least the following year.

Along with that, then, those institutions can count on seeing the quality of their incoming freshman classes improve as well.

“We did find that this increased pool of applicants that comes in the next couple of years after you do well in sports is composed of students that scored low and high on their SAT scores,” Pope said.

“So what does that mean? That means that there were some good-quality students that applied because of the sports. And then what we found was that schools can exploit these additional applications in two different ways. They can either enroll more students, and some schools may find that attractive. And other schools who are very selective may just simply select out those high-quality students from that increased pool of applicants, thereby improving the quality of their incoming freshman class,” Pope said.

One important qualifier – the study does not provide qualitative analysis of the relative benefits of spending by colleges and universities on athletics.

“I want to be really careful on this particular issue, in that what this study did was it found that there are some of these short-term benefits to having strong sports programs at colleges and universities. We see these sort of temporary bumps in applications and things. The study certainly does not address whether putting more money into sports programs is really the best use of resources,” Pope said.

“Because as we know, college sports is really a bit of an arms race. Every time a university devotes more money to athletics, then all the other universities sort of have to ante up as well. So it’s not clear that athletics is really the best investment. We’re not exploring that. All we can say is that given that schools are investing in this, high-school students seem to care about it,” Pope said.


Chris Graham is the executive editor of The SportsDominion.

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