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Keith Strudler: Playing For Enrollment

Minnesota’s upset football win last Saturday over Penn State pleased a broad and diverse coalition. Obviously, that starts with Minnesota football fans, who have waited since 1904 to once again see their team go 9-0. Also excited are fans of schools like Clemson and Georgia and Oklahoma, who were more than pleased to see Penn State cleared from the potential list of undefeated teams that might make college football’s four team playoff.  And add to that the large population of people who simply dislike Penn State football, both for more recent affairs as well as long-standing distain. Any school with that many fans has just as many enemies.

One final group of in this alliance might surprise you. It’s the admissions office at the University of Minnesota, who you may not ordinarily associate with Gophers football. To be clear, scholarship football athletes at a Big 10 School like Minnesota go through an entirely different admissions process, one predicated more on split time in the 40 than ACT score. But what Minnesota admissions folks hope and likely expect is an application spike tied directly to the national success of the football team. In other words, Minnesota administrators are looking for a correlation between the rise in football rankings and number of non-football playing students applying to attend next year.

To be clear, there’s validity to this line of thinking. Research indicates that major Division I football and men’s basketball success typically leads to both more students applying, and in some cases more highly competitive students. There’s some differences between public and private schools, and there’s some ambiguity about what constitutes athletic success. But overall, the data is pretty clear that moving up the national rankings in DI athletics can allow you to either grow your class, improve its constitution and ranking, and, in some cases, jack up tuition. If you’re looking for case studies, look no further than Alabama, Duke, Villanova, USC, and of course, Boston College, which coined the phrase “The Flutie Effect” after Doug Flutie led BC over Miami on perhaps the sport’s most famous Hail Mary play.

Obviously, this comes at some cost. Meaning money. Places like Ohio State or Texas spend upwards of $150 million a year, money they typically earn back. That said, it’s pretty expensive to run a losing program as well – just ask Rutgers. So maybe it makes sense to spend a bit more to get your money’s worth. That, of course, is how we end up with the athletic arms race that is college sports.

That aside, it’s hard to know whether Minnesota will bust at the seams after this football season. Some of that may depend on whether they get through two more ranked teams in the regular season then Ohio State in the conference final. That may bring lofty expectations back down to reality. And to be honest, college admissions is a bit of a moving target these days, so perhaps distilling causation instead of correlation may be difficult. Still, there are some takeaways from Minnesota’s optimism.

First, as much as big time college sports do seems completely removed from university academics, realize there remains a longstanding tie between what happens on the field or court and the overall standing of many universities. Whether college sports are truly educational is to be debated; its tie to the university brand is not.

Second, given the upcoming crisis facing college enrollments in the US, these data points could be increasingly meaningful to a range of universities. A whole lot of schools are building strategies of how to keep student numbers from crumbling given rising costs and a dip in birth rate that will hit hard come 2025. That could be even more pronounced in in the industrial Midwest and the Northeast. While it’s no magic bullet, it’s at least worth considering placing more, not less emphasis on winning programs in the right sports. If a top 10 finish can be part of a national student recruiting strategy, well, it’s probably worth the effort.

And lastly, this whole idea makes it increasingly difficult to argue against students being paid for their efforts, at least in places like Minnesota, where big time college football really matters. See, basketball players at, say, Duke, aren’t just athletes. They’re also part of the marketing arm of the university, one built on the success of their performance. Meaning if they play well, the University does better financially. If that’s not a job, I don’t know what is.

All of which could make some other people at the University of Minnesota somewhat apprehensive about all this success. Including, of course, anyone who cheers for Penn State.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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