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“Champions” of Higher Education

Posted At: March 5, 2012 2:00 PM
by Margaret Bishop

There are several factors to consider when choosing the perfect university to attend. Academic rankings, specific programs, location and cost are just a few determinants to consider during this crucial decision-making process. Athletics, however, can also play a key role in this choice. But how big of a concern is athletics in higher education?

Students at universities across the nation will attribute their choice in school to academics, campus activities and available scholarships. Though all of these are imperative factors, a study by Chad McEvoy from the University of Illinois shows that winning national championships in football has a positive correlation with increased undergraduate admissions. Other sports titles, however, have no correlation or a negative correlation with increasing enrollment. Although student-athletes make up a small percentage of university populations, athletics has become an important component in many students’ college decision. Whether these athletics are NCAA-sanctioned or intramural, sports have become a popular pastime in the higher education realm.

Whether academics or athletics are a decision-making factor or not, McEvoy’s study contains a model that better explains a student’s decision-making process when choosing a certain university. This model shows that choosing a school is an advancing process in which the future college student evolves through three phases: (1) predisposition, in which the student decides after high school whether or not to attend college, (2) search, in which the student gathers information on prospective schools and completes applications and (3) choice, in which the student determines which college or university to attend.


Cindy Singley, an admissions executive at Auburn University, winners of the 2010 football national championship, reinforced the idea that admissions are affected by athletic championship titles.

“At Auburn, we saw our applications increase by about 18 percent during the national championship season,” said Singley. “Increases were both in-state and out-of-state. Though the increases in the following year were not as dramatic, less than 5 percent, the tremendous increase from the prior year held strong.”

However, national-titled schools don’t always consider athletics to be a factor in their students’ decisions; in fact, it is sometimes hard to determine whether athletics plays a role at all — specifically at universities that do not boast strong football programs.

Teri Shafer, associate vice president of public affairs at Arizona State University, stresses that athletics plays an important part in the decision-making process, but not exclusive. Arizona State’s women’s softball team is the 2011 NCAA champion.

“Unfortunately, we have no way of isolating the impact on enrollment of winning an NCAA championship,” said Shafer. “There are a number of variables that affect enrollment. Athletics is an important aspect of university life, and students and alumni alike take great pride in the accomplishments of our NCAA teams.” Athletics aside, ASU boasts 612 National Merit Scholars and 324 National Hispanic Scholars, a large feat that is considered admirable in the higher education sphere.

According to Mary Wagner, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at The University of South Carolina, enrollment increases have little to no correlation with athletic championships.

“It is difficult to link increases in application volume to national championships at the University of South Carolina,” said Wagner. “We have seen an overall increase in applications over the years — long before we won our back-to-back national championships in baseball (2010 and 2011). Since 2001, we’ve doubled our application volume. We attribute our growth to better technology, efficiencies and aggressive outreach strategies. Also, websites and online application systems make it much easier for students to research and apply to more places, which means more applications for all of us.”

Dr. Mark Nelson, vice provost at The University of Alabama, also considers other reasons for enrollment increases. Nelson states that while enrollment has risen at UA — which boasts the national football champions of both 2009 and 2011 — athletics-based enrollment only makes up a small portion of applicants. Nelson believes other reasons for applications include the high academic standards that UA boasts, along with its beautiful campus and amenities.

Though the trend of increased enrollment seems to correspond with football championships, enrollment can also increase regardless. The University of Tennessee’s football team has had losing seasons in the last three of four years, but its university’s enrollment is still rising.

This information leads to the question, what does athletics do for a university’s overall image? It is sometimes hard to define a school based on one’s knowledge of its academic departments. The school’s athletics program, however, is usually more universally known and referenced. Nelson said that UA “expects national championships to have a positive impact on many areas of the University.” Therefore, athletics can be a crucial factor in a university’s PR efforts.


The main concern for universities, of course, is academics. The success of a school’s academic sphere can be judged in many ways. For instance, the USA Today All-USA College Academic Team is comprised of students from universities across the nation who excel in academics. This team is exclusively selected based on “grades, leadership, activities and most importantly, the student’s essay describing his or her most outstanding intellectual endeavor as a college undergraduate.” Though this award is not the same as winning an athletic national championship, these students are definitely considered as “champions” of higher education.

In another well-respected academic ranking, U.S. News & World Report named the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business first in the nation for its undergraduate international business program in the fall of 2010 and second in the nation for its graduate IB program.

Ashley Chynoweth, a senior at Auburn University majoring in accounting, said that academics were the main reason she decided to attend Auburn. “I chose Auburn because their accounting program is one of the top 30 programs in the country,” said Chynoweth. “They also have consistently high pass ratings for the CPA (certified public accountant) exam required for the master’s program.”

After taking into account the facts and statistics regarding athletics and enrollment, one thing is clear: academics are still the most prominent reason why students choose a certain university. Although winning athletic championships and titles is a fun, additional bonus, the academic rigor of these mentioned universities remains. At some point in time, all prospective students have that special moment that helps them realize they chose the right university. What was that special moment like for you?

References: McEvoy, C.(2005). The relationship between dramatic changes in team performance and undergraduate admissions applications.The Smart Journal, 2(1).17-24.

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