LAWRENCE — High-profile sports have an effect on how people view universities, but as it turns out, they don’t necessarily affect how students perceive how those outside of their school view the institution. A University of Kansas professor has published a study showing that success in all sports can play a role in how college students think people perceive the academic excellence of their school, but football and men’s basketball do not.
Aaron Clopton, associate professor of health, sport and exercise science and director of the Laboratory for the Study of Sport Management, surveyed more than 600 students at 27 Division I schools that are part of the Bowl Championship Series. He asked about their perceived external prestige, or “how they think others think of them,” based on their school’s athletic success. His study, which examined the effects of athletics on perceived academic, athletic and overall prestige, was published in the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics.
“Winning definitely shaped the athletic perceptions, no doubt about it,” Clopton said of the findings. “But men’s basketball and football, the two most high-profile sports, had nothing to do with perceptions of academic success.”
Students in the survey were asked to give a response on a “prestige scale” of one to seven of how they thought people outside the university viewed the school. The scale was applied to academic areas such as whether they thought others thought the school has high-quality faculty, teaching, scholarship and degree programs; and athletic areas such as whether the school has quality coaches, players, teams and so on. Clopton and co-author Bryan Finch of Oklahoma State University compared the responses to winning percentages of the respondents’ schools and those universities’ success across all sports, as represented in the Director’s Cup, an annual measurement of overall success in all men’s and women’s sports. Students were also asked how closely they identify with their university’s athletic teams and the school as a whole.
The findings showed that students did not believe that success in the most high-profile sports affected how people viewed their academic prestige. Not surprisingly, students showed that success in athletics does affect how people perceive their institution’s athletic prestige.
“Basically, our students seem to see through it,” Clopton said. “They don’t appear to think ‘we made the Final Four, so we’re an academically gifted school’ or things like that.”
However, students at universities that have high levels of success in the Director’s Cup standings do believe that success affects how people view their institution’s overall prestige, both academically and athletically. Research has shown that how people think about how others view them as individuals and as an organization affects how they operate.
“In other words it works until it doesn’t,” Clopton said of the balance between athletics and academics. “When things are going well athletically, perceived external prestige is high. But when they’re not the opposite is true. When we think about how others think of us, athletics does play a disproportionate role.”
Debate about the balance between athletics and academics is not new, but Clopton said he hopes to find evidence through his research to dispel assumptions or confirm truths. Athletics play a role in recruitment, alumni support and numerous other areas of university business. The study focused on students’ perceptions of prestige, as potential students often consider athletics when choosing a school. However, the findings show that enrolled students don’t always make a connection between athletics and university prestige.
“If athletics are to continue to represent the college or university as its ‘front porch,’ then the front porch needs to be representative of the house upon which it stands. Else, we run the risk of developing a significant amount of ‘buyer’s remorse’ for college students and/or their parents as tuition-paying stakeholders who were influenced by the lure of prestige through intercollegiate athletics,” Clopton and Finch wrote. “While effective examples do exist of universities using successful athletics and championship platforms to convey messages of academics and scholarship, higher education administrators must be vigilant in their awareness of the extent to which intercollegiate athletics is used in developing the university’s brand.”