There's a new study out which debunks the idea that there's a connection between winning collegiate athletic programs and success at recruiting students.
The study was conducted by Robert Frank, professor of management and economics at Cornell University, on behalf of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which was formed in 1989 to draft a blueprint for curbing financial excesses and academic failures in major college sports.
"Individual institutions that decide to invest more money in their sports programs in the hope of raising more funds or improving their applicant pools may be throwing good money after bad and would be wiser to spend the money in other ways," Frank wrote.
Given those circumstances, Frank suggested that universities "abandon the 'arms race' in which they are now engaged" to build athletic facilities.
Frank reached his conclusions after reviewing numerous studies between 1979 and 2003 on the topics of student admissions and alumni donations. He said athletic success may generate indirect benefits for universities but they are "almost surely very small."
Frank said that he had once thought a correlation existed between success in athletics and the attraction of good applicants. He now believes it was a widespread assumption based on two factors: Many students are sports fans, and a big-time athletic program serves much like a national advertising campaign because the successful teams appear frequently in the news.
The most common example to support that theory was produced 20 years ago, when applications at Boston College increased by 30 percent after quarterback Doug Flutie famously completed a long, last-second touchdown pass to win a late-season game at Miami.
Frank also provides a personal anecdote.
"A friend who teaches at Duke had heard that when Duke made the Final Four they got more applications the next year," Frank said Tuesday.
Even so, Frank said, "Beliefs that are generally false are rarely false in each and every instance. I was surprised to discover that programs with consistently winning teams did not have significantly more applications or better-quality matriculants than programs that had losing teams."
Significant positive effects on admissions, Frank said, are "almost always in the wake of a national championship or some other dramatic event. You need a dramatic story line. It's not the perennial powerhouse winning yet another Big Ten title."
Frank referred to a study looking at national champions in football and men's basketball between 1979 and 1992, which found that even if there were rises in applications, the study was "unable to find any measurable impact of these increases on the quality of admitted or entering students."