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Track team

Going Deep


Examining the role of sports in colleges and universities.

WHAT’S HAPPENING IN COLLEGE SPORTS? Ask this question of virtually anyone on the street, and odds are that you’ll hear about the football rankings, the Final Four, the latest athletics-related scandal at a well-known university, or the fortunes of the local favorite college team. Observers have termed college sports “the front porch” of colleges and universities, and they certainly are an enduring object of fascination and debate.

Yet, popular attention touches on only a very small part of the intercollegiate sports enterprise. Virtually every degree-granting institution in the US offers a wide range of teams for students’ intercollegiate athletics participation, and over 560,000 students compete on those teams. Of those, only around six percent participate in NCAA Division I football and basketball, the two sports dominating the airwaves and social media discussions. In other words, over a half a million college students are competing outside the view of the mass media and the general public.

Many of those students are enrolled outside of the large, mainly public Division I schools: while only about three percent of Division I student bodies typically compete intercollegiately, student-body participation proportions are typically over 20 percent in the smaller, mainly private Division III schools (see Figure 1).

Division III Quartile Proportions of Athletes in Undergraduate Enrollement
Figure 1.

The sports institutions offer their students are changing in important ways. Increasing numbers of schools are offering such sports as women’s golf and men’s and women’s lacrosse while, outside of the Division I schools, commitments to wrestling and tennis have actually declined.

Given these facts, it is striking that athletics are so rarely mentioned in the pages of our primary research journals. Research regarding the connection of athletics to institutional organization and strategy is especially scarce. For example, why might a financially struggling small private college choose to expand its athletics offerings? Why would Swarthmore, one of the earliest schools to play intercollegiate football, drop its team just as its fiercest academic and athletic competitors invested in major athletics upgrades? Why are so many colleges launching new teams to compete in lacrosse and other “green-field” sports? Most importantly, how do such decisions affect applications, enrollments, campus culture, financial health, and donations?

The Institute has not ignored such questions. Our late IHE colleague Doug Toma perceptively studied college sports, and recent IHE doctoral students Doug Chadwick, David Dial, Wendy Hoffman, Solomon Hughes, Torie Johnson, and Dennis Kramer each focused their theses on the topic. But much remains to be done.

Sharing an interest in athletics, the three of us set out to explore the topic further. In keeping with the theme of this year’s IHE Report, our research team reflects the collaborative nature of the Institute. The first author is a longtime Institute faculty member and parent of a college athlete. The second author is an Institute graduate (Ph.D. 2009), an associate professor in the Grady College here at UGA, and a former senior editor for athletics at The Chronicle of Higher Education. The third author is a current doctoral student in the Institute with strong interests in institutional data analysis and intercollegiate competition. As a team, we have launched a project exploring three core research questions:

1. How have colleges and universities shifted their intercollegiate athletic profiles over recent decades?A group of Lacrosse players

2. What factors have been associated with changing institutional athletics profiles?

3. How have changes in institutions’ athletics profiles affected financial and academic health on campuses?

We have begun several efforts addressing our core research questions. With funding from the Council of Independent Colleges, we are producing a report addressing research questions 1 and 2 among members of that association. Our report for the CIC will be released later this fall. Separately, we have launched analyses of the strategic role of athletics, with primary attention to the causes and effects of shifts in institutions’ athletics profiles (research questions 2 and 3).

It is striking that athletics are so rarely mentioned in the pages of our primary research journals.

For example, what economic, demographic, locational, or mission characteristics are associated with colleges adding soccer, football, or other sports to their array of athletics offerings? Might the expansion of programming in sports favored by wealthier families (e.g., lacrosse) help improve institutions’ finances? How do the recent moves by many schools to add or revive football programs affect institutional health and stability?

College-choice theories, institutional theory, resource-dependency theory, and other conceptual schemes provide a foundation for our quantitative analyses of 24 years of institutional data as well as our planned qualitative studies. But our analyses are also aimed at going beyond theory to application.

Intercollegiate athletics can be a key element of students’ college experiences, but sports also can be a key element in colleges’ positioning for efficiency, effectiveness, and equity. Our primary focus is on this strategic role of intercollegiate athletics. Underlying our work is the notion that athletics are more important in the lives of institutions than the low volume of rigorous analysis would suggest. The reality is that researchers of higher education rarely study college sports from the institution’s perspective. The “front porch” needs more attention, and we hope to address that need.

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