College football is reaching a crescendo for another season, reminding us that colleges do more than create and disseminate knowledge and debate ideas—they also entertain. Many passionate supporters of collegiate sports think that they enhance public support for education, actually improving academic capabilities and performance of our colleges and universities.
The peak recognition of scholarly firepower in higher education is membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU), a group of 63 American high research and scholarship schools (two more are from Canada). Similarly, the peak of recognition for athletic achievement is membership in one of the Power Five athletic conferences—65 schools (counting Notre Dame, loosely associated with the Atlantic Coast Conference).
Are these two almost identically sized groups quite similar in composition? No. Of the 65 schools belonging to athletic power conferences, only one-half also belong to the AAU. By contrast, a very weak athletic conference that does not even play in football bowl games or grants athletic scholarships, the Ivy League, has all eight schools included in the AAU, and all are in the top 15 schools on the Forbes Best College rankings. The Ivy League is tops in brains and scholarly accomplishment, but weak in brawn and athletic accomplishment. A number of top schools (e.g, M.I.T., University of Chicago, Washington U. in St. Louis, Cal Tech) barely have any sports teams at all and certainly do not expend many resources on intercollegiate athletics.
Moreover, the strongest football teams are from schools of so-so academic reputations. In the five years since the College Football Playoffs began, only once did a school belonging to the AAU (Ohio State) win. Perennial football powers like Alabama, Clemson, and Oklahoma have rather modest academic reputations. None of those schools, for example, made the top 20% (130) of the 650 schools ranked by Forbes on its 2019 Best College list. Of the current top five football teams in the AP poll, only one, the University of Georgia is (barely, at 99) in the top 100 in the Forbes rankings. To be sure, some top reputation schools like Duke, Stanford, Notre Dame, and Northwestern occasionally have moments of athletic glory, and all play top athletic powerhouses. And there are quite a few very high academic quality public universities (e.g, Michigan, Illinois, UCLA and Texas) which are usually likewise highly competitive in one of the major sports.
There are a few schools for which I believe athletic success has contributed to academic success, most notably Notre Dame. That school’s academic reputation and financial resources have risen over the decades with its fairly consistent athletic success, particularly in football. But for every Notre Dame, there are at least five schools like Rutgers (haplessly at the bottom of Big Ten football competition despite huge institutional subsidization of intercollegiate athletics) or any of the 14 Mid American Conference schools aspiring to Power Five athletic greatness but almost certainly will not attain it. The latter schools lose at least $20 million annually on average each (roughly $1,000 per student) feeding their rather pathetic athletic aspirations.
Moreover, a host of new problems make big time investment in college sports even more problematic. Let’s briefly note three. The financial exploitation of highly skilled athletes is getting greater attention and they will almost certainly be receiving greater compensation for playing in coming years. The realization that violence in college sports imposes potential significant long-term health care costs is growing, with potential financial liabilities for universities. Finally, attendance at the games themselves is declining on some campuses.
Add to those woes a more existential one: universities themselves more broadly are facing a less robust future. Enrollments are stagnating, even falling. Public support of universities may be weakening, and real per student state government appropriations are below their all-time high. Universities face very high fixed costs for tenured faculty salaries and debt service, so as budgets become tighter, athletic subsidies become less defensible—only a handful of schools truly break even on intercollegiate athletics. America may start to emulate virtually every other nation in the world, separating the entertainment of athletic competitions from the dissemination and creation of knowledge and creative endeavors.