Does Switching Athletics Conferences Lead to Academic Gains?

Colleges change their athletic-conference affiliation for all sorts of reasons, but it’s mostly to make more TV money and move up the perceived ladder of prestige. It’s rare to hear anyone talk about the academic impact.

But switching leagues, it turns out, often enhances an institution’s ability to attract and retain high-quality students. Those are among the findings from a paper to be presented on Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Association for Institutional Research.

In fact, many of the 32 Division I colleges that changed conferences between 2004 and 2011 and were part of the study saw some sort of academic benefit from the switch, according to Dennis A. Kramer II and Michael J. Trivette, the two doctoral students at the University of Georgia who wrote the paper.

On average, colleges that moved to a new league saw about a 3-percent decrease in their admit rate (meaning they became more selective) and a 5-percent increase in their admission yield rate (more admitted students enrolled) three years after joining the new conference. The ACT scores of incoming students increased by more than .29 points. And the colleges saw a net gain of about 130 applications per year three years after their moves.

The results persisted even after taking into consideration institutional characteristics and prior institutional prestige, along with athletic financial and on-field success, the authors say.

Among the biggest winners were institutions that moved to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Boston College, which left the Big East for the ACC in 2005, saw a 37-percent increase in applications three years later. Virginia Tech, which joined the league in 2004, was getting 16.6-percent more applications three years later.

Texas Christian also made big academic strides after its move to the Mountain West. Three years after leaving Conference USA, in 2005, it was receiving 50 percent more applications. The college also became more selective, admitting 14-percent fewer students. (We’ll have to wait a few years to see how the Horned Frogs’ latest move pays off; the university becomes a member of the Big 12 next month.)

The increased media exposure and added money many colleges bring in when they switch leagues may be the driving forces behind the improved academic perception, the authors say.

Kramer and Trivette see this study as the first step in looking at the long-term impact of conference realignment on academics. In an interview, Kramer said he hopes his and his colleague’s research aligns more people from the academic and athletic sides as they consider their appropriate conference affiliation.

“We hope that the results of this study help to bring athletic and academic administrators together to leverage decisions aimed at increasing overall institutional prestige,” Kramer said. “The gains in applicants and incoming student quality attributed to athletic conference realignment helps to codify the relationship between athletics and academics.”

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