Pass or Run? The Impact of Football on Independent Colleges

Football on football field

​Football has a unique place in American higher education. Roughly half of CIC’s 660 institutional members sponsor the sport. Some have sponsored it for a century or more, with institutional lore harking back to victories over flagship universities and the powerhouses of the day. Notably, CIC member Sewanee: The University of the South was viewed as the most dominant team nationally in the late 1800s, after wins over powerhouse teams from around the country.

Today, institutions are divided into associations, divisions, and subdivisions, and David and Goliath matchups are far less common. Contemporary smaller private colleges play football before smaller crowds and fewer media. Still, the sport remains an integral part of institutional strategy at the places that sponsor it.

In point of fact, the sport is increasing in popularity as we marked the 150th anniversary of the first commonly recognized college football game in 1869. From 1993 to 2018, 67 CIC colleges and universities added the sport, while only 15 have dropped it. Two-thirds of those additions have come since 2004 as colleges seek new ways to build campus community, attract more male students, and appeal to a broader population of potential students.

For this report, we explored changes at CIC member institutions that added football by using a new dataset combining sports sponsorship and roster data from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE) with institutional data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). We focused on the 31 CIC members that added football between 2007 and 2015. We developed a difference-in-difference model comparing these institutions to the 201 CIC members that did not sponsor the sport during this period to address the following research questions:

  • Among colleges that added a football team, does enrollment increase more than at comparable institutions that have never sponsored the sport?

    • Does adding a football team have an effect on male enrollment, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the student body?

    • Does adding a football team have an effect on minority enrollment, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the student body?
  • Among colleges that added a football team, do application numbers and yield rates change relative to comparable peer institutions that have never sponsored the sport?

  • Among colleges that added a football team, does net tuition revenue increase more than at comparable peer institutions that have never sponsored the sport?

We also visited Berry College in Rome, Georgia, which added football in 2013–2014, in the hope that the college’s experiences would inform our assumptions and quantitative findings. Berry had more than 100 athletes come out for football in the sport’s inaugural year but suffered through a couple difficult seasons. In 2015, the Vikings turned things around and were conference champions in 2016, 2017, and 2018.

Both at Berry and in our research, we found that adding football contributed to a significant increase in enrollment, male enrollment, African American enrollment, applications, and tuition revenue. However, when examining that impact over time, we found that the effects did not persist at a significant level beyond one or at most two years after adding the sport. In some cases, a significant decline was noted in both overall and male enrollment as well as in applications in the second year following the addition of the sport. As such, football appears to result in attracting new students and losing others, rather than increasing numbers of applications or enrolled students.

Such a shift may benefit institutions that seek to appeal to a broader range of students if forecasts of shrinking college-going populations come to fruition. However, football is not without its challenges. Further research linking long-term mental health issues to trauma suffered in contact/collision sports such as football may be dampening interest in the sport as participation rates decline at the high school level. Moreover, a handful of independent colleges have forfeited seasons because of injury-depleted rosters, fostering long-term concern about the cost and viability of the sport on some campuses.

In short, football is not a strategic panacea for smaller private colleges. But in the right place, with the right personnel, and with a commitment to facilities and expenses, it may enhance college life and make an institution more attractive to a broader range of applicants.

​Council of Independent Colleges
David Welch Suggs, Jr., Jennifer May-Trifiletti, and James C. Hearn
June 2020

Enrollment; Diversity; Student Demographics
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