Market Power

Musings by an academic economist on the power of markets and the power over markets.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Football Team Quality and Academic Quality

What is the relationship between athletics and academics on college campuses? Do they compliment one another or do they stand in contrast to one another? Or is there a gray area?

Four years ago, Karl Furstenburg, the Dean of Admissions at Dartmouth, sent a letter to his close personal friend Alfred Bloom. Bloom, the president of Swarthmore College at that time, had made a controversial decision to drop its football program. Furstenburg wrote:

"I am writing to commend you on the decision to eliminate football from your
athletic offerings. Other institutions would do well to follow your lead. I know
you've heard a lot of criticism about this decision but I, for one, support this
change. You are exactly right in asserting that football programs represent a
sacrifice to the academic quality and diversity of entering first-year classes.
This is particularly true at highly selective institutions that aspire to
academic excellence. My experience at both Wesleyan and Dartmouth is consistent
with what you have observed at Swarthmore. I wish this were not true but sadly
football, and the culture that surrounds it, is antithetical to the academic
mission of colleges such as ours. This is really a national problem and it is a
good thing that you are taking leadership on the issue. A close examination of
intercollegiate athletics within the Ivy League would point to other sports in
which the same phenomenon is apparent. In any event, I thought you would be glad
to hear a few words of encouragement on this difficult issue."

Dartmouth is currently looking for a new football coach. In a story in the Valley News,
Furstenburg gives a much different assessment of athletics and academics:
“Intercollegiate athletics are a very significant part of the life here, and
admissions, financial aid and the athletic department work very, very closely together to make this all work within our own values and policies of the Ivy League...”

This, understandably, has created a bit of a firestorm at Dartmouth. This webpage at the Dartmouth News contains statements by Dean Furstenburg as well as Dartmouth President James Wright and Vice President William Walker trying to stem the tide. Dean Furstenburg explains that his letter was written to a close friend who he thought needed a boost in a very difficult time. So which is the real opinion of Dean Furstenburg: the private one or the public one?

Are athletics and academics in opposition to one another? To hear many faculty talk, the answer is yes, but academic research is divided. This paper, completed for the NCAA by Litan, Orszag, and Orszag, doesn't find any statistical relationship between operating expenditures on football and either the SAT scores of incoming students or alumni giving. I haven't read the whole paper, so I can't comment on it. A paper by Robert McCormick and Maurice Tinsley called "Athletics and Academics: A Model of University Contributions" contained in Sportometrics edited by Brian Goff and Robert D. Tollison finds that athletic contributions and contributions to an academic endowment are positively correlated. These results suggest that an increase in athletic donations do not take donations away from the athletic fund. One problem of this study is that the authors used data from Clemson University, so it's difficult to generalize their findings. But you get the idea that a consensus does not yet exist.

I just finished reading Walter Byers' Unsportsmanlike Conduct, a defense of the NCAA written by its first full-time executive director. He writes about Dexter Manley and Kevin Ross of Oklahoma State and Creighton University respectively. Neither knew how to read before or after they left their schools. Ross, Byers writes, had a composite ACT score of 9 and was originally denied admittance, but was let in when the vice president of the school granted him an exception. It's stories such as these that provide anecdotal evidence against athletics.

Later on (page 321) Byers writes:

""Those courses [the soft ones - Byers] are there for a purpose," President
Gail J. Fullerton of San Jose State University told me shortly vefore leaving
office. "The problem occurs when too many athletes get in one course or a
given athlete takes too many of the courses."

"The incongruity seems obvious. The offerings are there to attract
students and tuition dollars. The courses are justified as college-level
work for nonatheltes, but not athletes because, I suppose, they bring with them
too much public scrutiny."

Byers argues that colleges share the blame for allowing these sorts of courses in the first place.

There are so many questions to ask: Can a college compete on the field and also keep high academic standards? Do winning teams generate more contributions to academic funds? Do winning teams generate more applicants and attract better students? Is money spent at the athletic department money not spent on academics? Is a contribution to the athletic department a contribution not given to the school? Does athletic department spending represent a drain of resources from a school? If they do stand in contrast to one another, who does the blame rest on? The list goes on.