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College Football Success Leads to Uptick in Applications, Donations

When colleges and universities continue to pour millions of dollars into big-time football programs, they often justify the spending by claiming that successful programs end up repaying the campus with other benefits.

As it turns out, there may just be something to that argument.

A new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that each extra win from a major football program results in an increase of alumni athletic donations of $136,400.

Not only does winning often result in some extra-stuffed coffers for football programs, it also tends to increase the number of student applications, the incoming SAT scores on said applications, and a school's academic reputation, according to the research.

The paper's author, Michael L. Anderson, examined the 120 football teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (what was once known as Division I-A), using data from 1986 to 2009. While previous research has suggested a link between athletic success and a boost to a school's reputation, Anderson's paper uncovers a much greater connection than previously suggested.

For a football team that improves its win total by five games from one season to the next, Anderson estimates the school would see an increase of $682,000 in alumni donations, an extra 677 applications, and the school's acceptance rate to drop by 1.5 percentage points.

Still, these findings shouldn't encourage school administrators to go dump all their extra money into their football programs, Anderson told Brad Wolverton of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

"You wouldn't want to run your team at a loss and hope to make it up on donations and increased applications," he said. "The magnitude here isn't really enough to justify that. You'd still want the team to be able to cover its costs."

Speaking from personal experience for a second: I don't have any hard data to back this up, but having been a student at Georgetown for its most recent Final Four run in 2007, these findings aren't altogether unsurprising.

When the Georgetown class of 2011 came to campus that fall, the hysteria for Georgetown basketball was palpable on campus. After announcing a contract extension with head coach John Thompson III in October 2007, donations started pouring in, according to the student newspaper, The Hoya.

Now that I'm a few years removed from college, the Georgetown basketball team remains one of my closest ties to the university. I still routinely speak with friends about the prospects we're recruiting and our chances each upcoming season. If I'm donating money to the university, it's likely either to go to the basketball team or the pep band (of which I was a member), realistically speaking.

Granted, Anderson's study focuses on football, not basketball. But based on these findings about the impact of collegiate football success, it would be highly interesting to see whether the boosts in applications and donations applied to other major collegiate sports, too.

(H/T to the Chronicle.)

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