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Does Switching Athletics Conferences Lead to Academic Gains?

A new study from two University of Georgia doctoral students suggests that schools making athletics conference affiliation changes may also get a boost to academics. So it's not just about the money?

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.

Boston College and Virginia Tech are cited as two of the more prominent examples of this effect. According to the study, Boston College saw a 37-percent increase in applications three years after the 2005 move to the ACC. Similarly, Virginia Tech received 16.6 percent more applications three years later.

The authors suggest that "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." So, then, it is about the money?

Over the long run, I don't think this study will find that all conference affiliation changes provide a boost to academics. However, I do think nearly all of the recent major conference moves will bear out this trend. A couple of factors to consider:

-- The academic company you keep. As I said, nearly every major conference move since 2003 has seen BCS AQ programs climb the academic totem pole based on associating with higher ranked academic institutions. The individuals that make decisions weigh the academic benefits of a conference affiliation just as much, if not more than financial and athletics factors.

Going all the way back to 2003, Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College all received a boost academically by moving to the ACC. Big 12 defectors Nebraska and Colorado both gained by moving to the Big Ten and Pac-12, respectively. Same with Utah. Syracuse and Pittsburgh stand to gain by moving to the ACC. Even Texas A&M and Missouri improve their lot academically by moving from the Big 12 to the SEC. West Virginia and TCU's moves from the Big East to the Big 12 might be a bit of a step down academically, so it will be interesting to track both school's admissions and academic rankings in the years after those schools make the transition to the Big 12.

This is part of what makes the possibility of Florida State and Clemson ditching the ACC for the academically inferior Big 12 so intriguing. It would be one of the first times in recent realignment history that two schools took a clear step down academically in a pure money grab.

-- Demographics. The academic company you keep and the money is good and all, but where a program decides to realign is almost as important as the who and the how much. You could put Boston College football on TV every day of the week and give the program twice as much cash as the ACC does today. But if the school moved to a conference centrally located in the Rust Belt (MAC) or the Deep South (Sun Belt), the school isn't going to enjoy nearly the boost to admissions that they would if they moved into a conference centered in a growing area of the country. Schools like BC, Virginia Tech, Colorado and Utah have benefitted from some favorable demographic trends just as much as they have athletically, academically and financially.

The money and increased TV exposure can certainly lead to a school receiving a boost to academics and admissions, but I don't think all conference moves translate. Recent history suggests that major conference programs which have switched conferences also benefit from academic and demographic factors just as much as financial ones.