To Football or Not?

By Jordan Weissmann:

Everything we think we know about college football’s impact on students’ grades, graduation rates, rankings, and school finances adds up to this: Football might be bad for some colleges…

Short answer: It enriches the powerhouses, but the larger story is mixed.

Short answer: Winning teams could lead to more applications and higher college rankings.

Short answer: Winning teams appear to be bad for grades, but good for graduation rates.

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  • Robin

    One bottom line, financially, is that the football team has to be profitable enough to support, not only itself, but all of the scholarships its presence mandates in non-revenue-generating sports. (As well as offset revenue losses from other marginal sports).

    Here is what I mean. If you have 75 football players on scholarship and 15 (men’s) basketball players, then you are also required to have 90 female athletes on scholarship. This might include some females who are in popular programs like softball or basketball, but it might also require a school to create new female programs that hemorrhage money in order to satisfy the scholarship requirement. My alma mater created scholarship women’s soccer, softball, crew, and rugby so that they could keep their programs (There were almost men’s teams in those sports, but none of them provided scholarships).

    Our football team might have made enough money to pay it’s own bills, but when you account for the cost of those other programs it would have definitely been cheaper to scrap football as well as those programs.

    At least 1 major division 1 school that I know of (Butler) has decided not to field a football team for this reason.

  • Robin

    About the marginal sports…if a school has a marginally profitable baseball or wrestling program which it has to get rid of to equalize scholarships, the real revenue consideration is:

    Football profits-losses from NRGsports-profits from marginal programs when they are jettisoned

    I have no doubt this is negative in many cases, but you also have to consider enrollment bumps from athletic performance. Applications to Butler increases 41% after they went to the Final Four. I think it would have to be similar in Football. Can you imagine what enrollment at places like Michigan and Ohio State would be if they never started monstrously successful athletic programs. They would still be sleepy little liberal arts colleges in backwater towns.

  • Rick

    Robin #1-

    “Our football team might have made enough money to pay it’s own bills, but when you account for the cost of those other programs it would have definitely been cheaper to scrap football as well as those programs.”

    But is that a good thing? Shouldn’t we encourage a variety of sports and student-athletes? Some of your best, most well-rounded students come from those “other programs”.

  • RJS


    Michigan certainly benefits from the popularity and success of the football team. But the national fame, reputation, and draw did not start with football – one of the most important factors was accepting students that “elite” east coast schools wouldn’t take for social, religious, and ethnic reasons. This began a stream that continues today – and reputation provides the ability to maintain reputation. Michigan has not been a “little liberal arts college in a backwater town” since the early (very early) 1900’s.

  • Michael Cox

    Having background in student development at small Christian Liberal Arts institutions, I always wondered what would have happened if the athletic scholarship money would have been diverted to underprivileged or academic program specific funds. On the whole, these kinds of schools are facing enormous financial problems. I suspect that enrollment would increase as a result of spreading the money around, student conduct problems would decrease, and the culture of the student body would improve.

    However, such a proposal is looked down upon. How does a school propose to cut such a visible program without sending the message that the ship is sinking? Call me idealistic, but I’m still in favor of cutting large athletic programs for such small schools that say they’re in it for educating the whole person. Pour the money into intramurals, scholarships, and/or stop spending money that doesn’t exist.

  • Are there links documenting these “facts”? I am truly interested in the latest findings on these topics…

  • … okay, I read the original article. I assumed that “By Jordan Weissmann” meant that Mr Weissmann was the blogger.

  • Scot, ‘football’ is not a verb.

  • Anderson


    Butler has a football team and has no plans to eliminate the program in the foreseeable future. For the past 20 years, Butler has played in the Pioneer League, a conference whose members don’t award athletic scholarships to football players.

  • Fish

    The other side of sleepy backwater college towns prospering from monstrously successful football programs is that there are some parents who are going to discourage their kids from going to a “football school.”

    The thing about choosing a school because of its football program is that you have students who based the most important educational decision of their lives on the quality of entertainment.

    I admit that students may have become aware of a university that meets their educational goals because of its football visibility.