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Academic Reputation and Athletic Affiliation: What Joining the PAC-12 Means for the U

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The U’s move to the Pac-12 athletic conference has generated considerable excitement on campus and across the state. However, in some corners apprehension has surfaced.  Most prominent among the worries is money, given the “arms race” that has emerged in college athletics over the last decade.  Just this past week the Chronicle of Higher Education detailed the dramatic increase in university subsidies for athletic departments.  Although there’s little doubt that the U’s move to the Pac-12 will result in greater demand for new athletic facilities, higher salaries for coaches, and increased pressure on targeted development activities, it’s important to consider the broader relationship between athletic conference affiliation and academic reputation.

Among what have been referred to as the “big six” athletic conferences, the two with the strongest academic reputations by far are the Big Ten and the Pac-12.  Five of the 11 Big Ten schools are ranked in the U.S. News and World Report (USNWR) top 50 and ten of the 11 are ranked in the top 100 worldwide according to the Academic Rankings of World Universities (ARWU).  Similarly, five of the original Pac-10 schools are in the USNWR top 50 and seven are in the ARWU top 100.  Only one Mountain West Conference school was in the ARWU top 100, the University of Utah.

The average research budgets of these two conferences are equally impressive, with a Big Ten average of $574 million and a Pac-10 average of $455 million, with the U’s research budget falling right in line at well over $400 million.  With the U’s departure from the Mountain West Conference, the average research budget will drop from $106 million to $89 million, a far cry from the Pac-12.

With respect to athletic conference affiliation, the U simply couldn’t have chosen a better peer group. The only athletic conference affiliation that is stronger from an academic perspective is the Ivy League (yes, it’s simply an athletic conference affiliation), with all eight universities ranked in the top 14 in the USNWR rankings, and Princeton, Harvard and Yale occupying the top three slots.  I won’t bore you with the statistics, but you can actually take these comparisons a step further and demonstrate that a BCS conference athletic affiliated school is: a) significantly more likely to be ranked in the top 50 nationally or top 100 worldwide in terms of academic reputation and b) likely to have an average research budget that exceeds $300 million.

What will the U’s academic trajectory be after joining the Pac-12?  Only a couple of universities have made comparable moves and Penn State provides the best case example.

Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1990. At the time it joined the Big Ten it had research expenditures in the $350 million range and comparable to the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, both top tier research universities. By 2009, however, Penn State had doubled its research expenditures to $780 million, far surpassing both UT ($580 million) and A&M ($600 million), due in large part to the enhanced academic competition of its peer group in the Big Ten.  Other metrics indicated comparable improvements on the academic side of campus, including an increase in graduation rates from 57% in 1990 to 85% in 2009 and an improvement in average SAT scores from well below 1100 to well above 1200 (using math and reading scores combined).  The U is already seeing significant increases in student applications, including greater numbers from out of state students.  Average student applications numbers in the Mountain West Conference ranged from around 10,000 to 17,000.  Average student application numbers in the Pac-12 range from 11,000 to over 57,000.  It’s also worth noting that from a development perspective, the U’s new peer group is remarkably successful, with five of the top 20 fundraising universities coming from the Pac-12. We could extend this argument further to include average faculty and staff salaries, all of which are significantly higher in the Pac-12.

The relationship between athletic conference affiliation and academic reputation is, to say the least, interesting. I would suggest in the case of the U, it’s also remarkably promising. We’re in a very attractive neighborhood now, athletically and academically. Not only will the move to the Pac-12 increase pressure on the athletic department, it’ll do the same for academics. The dramatic increase in exposure for the U will create new opportunities on the academic side, with several already emerging. The U will be hosting the Pac-12 Arts and Sciences Deans Conference next year, an event focused specifically on academics.  The move to the Pac-12 will also present new challenges, but the U is well-positioned and well-prepared.  I have no doubt we’ll not only continue our positive academic trajectory but accelerate it given new competition.

Read and see more about the U’s entry into the Pac-12 here on the special website.