By: Matthew Denhart
College football’s Bowl Championship Series (BCS) annually frustrates and infuriates much of sports nation when it announces which NCAA football teams have secured spots in each of the five coveted BCS bowls. While the BCS system may or may not be the best method of determining championship caliber football teams (we’ll leave that debate to the sports journalists at ESPN and the like), perhaps it can help shed some light on which athletic conferences house some of the best colleges and universities.
Collegiate athletic conferences group schools into categories based on things such as region, school type and size. This lends well for making comparisons, and it is an interesting exercise to examine which of the six major BCS conferences (the ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 10 and SEC) ranks highest in the recently released CCAP/Forbes.com rankings of America’s best colleges.
Taking the average overall ranking of colleges by conference it is clear that the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) does the best with an average ranking of 257. Next is the Pac 10 at 264, followed by the Big 10, SEC, Big East and finally the Big 12. The ACC likely does so well as it harbors two highly ranked private institutions in Wake Forest University (ranking 69th overall) and Duke University (at number 80). The University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are also members of the ACC and boast rankings of 43rd and 66th best overall respectively.
However, since some of the other conferences do not have as many private schools (which on average perform better than their public counterparts in our ranking), comparing conferences based on the average ranking of a conference’s public colleges probably provides a better basis for comparison. Thus, when taking the average ranking of public colleges/universities by BCS conference, the SEC takes home top marks with an average ranking of 43. The table below lists each of the conferences and its average public ranking:
1. SEC (43)
2. PAC 10 (47.1)
3. Big 10 (47.8)
4. ACC (56)
5. Big 12 (66)
6. Big East (73)
Within the SEC such schools as the Universities of Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Mississippi State all rank in the top 20 public schools in the country, helping boost the conference’s average. The Big 10 actually has the most overall schools ranking in the top 50 public schools—they have 7 out of the 10. However, low scores from Purdue University (which suffers from low graduation rates and poor student ratings of professors) and the University of Minnesota (suffering from the same factors as Purdue) place the conference third on the list and behind the SEC, a place Big 10 fans can relate all too well with after having lost to SEC powerhouses Florida and LSU the past two years in the national championship football bowl game. Within the Big East, the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University are bright spots, but overall the conference is plagued by low rankings resulting generally from low graduation rates and poorly rated professors. In addition, some highly ranked Big East schools—Georgetown and Notre Dame come to mind—are excluded from this measure as they are both private schools.
Most students likely do not choose a college on the basis of that institution’s athletic conference affiliation. However, these findings do show that among many of America’s most recognizable public universities, New England and the coasts do not have a monopoly on quality institutions. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case to a certain extent, with the southern schools of the SEC and Midwestern schools of the Big 10 ranking competitively. Perhaps many of these “jock schools” provide a quality undergraduate experience in addition to thrilling and exciting football teams.
Matthew Denhart is an undergraduate student at Ohio University and "chief whiz kid" (student research associate) with the Center of College Affordability and Productivity.