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College football likely won't boost on-campus enrollment, per study

College football likely won't boost on-campus enrollment, per study


America's higher education institutions shouldn't expect to take a Hail Mary — or simply step — out of the national college enrollment crisis, according to new research.

a study published this month in the scientific journal, Research in higher educationbased on a data analysis at the University of Georgia, concluded that adding a football team has not proven to give a university an edge in attracting new students (and their dollars).

The study authors looked at NCAA and U.S. Department of Education data from 36 NCAA member institutions that added football to their athletics departments between 2002 and 2018 — from public Division I universities like South Alabama to private D-III schools such as Becker College (Mass.), which ultimately closed in 2021. They found that adding football, on average, did not have any positive effect on long-term enrollment — or black student enrollment specifically — nor did it have a “significant effect” on tuition and fee revenues.

To the extent there was an increase in football-related enrollment, the authors wrote, “it appears to be concentrated in the year the colleges added the team. Then it simply fades away. This seems to indicate that the promised profits from football are disappearing at best.”

The study adds to the liturgy of academic work over the past several decades that seeks to determine how a school's investment in varsity athletics benefits its broader mission and business model. Perhaps best known among this genre of research is the so-called “Flutie Effect,” named for the surge in applications to Boston College following BC quarterback Doug Flutie's iconic, game-winning strike against Miami in 1984. The latest study did not use took into account how well newly added football programs performed on the field, nor did it look at other factors that may have influenced school enrollment during the same time period.

“This is the closest we come to asking what would have happened to a university if football had never been added,” the study's lead author, Welch Suggs, an associate professor at Georgia, said in a statement. “It is often said that sports are the porch of the university. But what we see is that colleges that haven't built that porch are probably getting the same number of students and the same tuition as the colleges that recently did.”

This conclusion flies in the face of conventional wisdom – and some previous research – on the institutional benefits of adding a football program, especially for tuition-reliant schools. A frequently cited 2015 study in the journal: College planning and management, found that among six small universities, adding football and a marching band helped increase the student population. That same year an article appeared in Strategic enrollment management, quarterly, came to a similar conclusion. A 2021 study in the Journal of Higher Education Athletics & Innovation found a link between small private colleges that recently added football and spikes in minority and male student enrollment.

In light of this research and the intuitions of their leaders, schools have steadily begun fielding football teams in hopes of offsetting the decline in enrollment. As of last fall, 772 collegiate institutions (from DI to NAIA) across the country offered the sport, according to to the National Football Foundation. That number includes another 10 new programs that will be added by the end of 2025.

“No other sport contributes more to the vibrancy of a college campus than football,” NFF President and CEO Steve Hatchell said in a statement last year.

But that vibrancy may have its practical limits, warns the new study, which notes that the concussion-causing activity is also not without legal liabilities and ethical dilemmas.

“Football is not a pigskin panacea for colleges and universities,” the study said. “The health risks of participating in sport are real and could become even greater. This will raise important moral questions for university leaders to consider whether they anticipate starting teams or resuming competition in light of declining enrollments.”




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