by Michael Malesick
Is the Big Ten really the "biggest and the best?" Research has revealed that many Big Ten universities' academic rankings fall below the mean average for academic standards. Although most Big Ten institutions excel in athletics, this is not always the case academically. Furthermore, Big Ten schools typically sink enormous dollars into their athletic programs, yet even with these state-of-the-art facilities and big budgets, this has not guaranteed success.
Here at CCAP, we recently completed our undergraduate rankings for 2009. We decided to observe how Big Ten institutions rank academically, as opposed to athletically. Three schools that have fared rather poorly in football and basketball in recent years -- Northwestern University, University of Illinois, and University of Michigan --fare well (at the top) of the Big Ten in terms of the Forbes/CCAP Best College rankings. (see chart for details; a lower rank is a sign of good performance). For instance, Northwestern University is 17th in our undergraduate rankings (out of 600 schools) and easily tops the Big Ten; however, their 3-year athletic average (2006-2008 football and men's basketball) ranks them last in the Big Ten. Ohio State ranks 7th out of 11 academically, but is clearly leading the Big Ten in athletics as the premier athletic program.
Finally, the Big Ten is rich in tradition and proud of its athletic reputation, but the correlation between athletic and academic success is clearly not positive -- meaning perhaps schools need to rethink their priorities in allocating scarce resources. It will be interesting to apply similar analysis to other conferences, such as the Southeast Conference, where, again, the top school academically (Vanderbilt) is definitely at or near the bottom athletically. Is there more generally an athletics-academic trade-off, contrary to assertions of proponents of big-time intercollegiate athletics who argue that good performance in sports has positive benefits in terms of the academic side of the institutional mission?
Michael Malesick is a research associate of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and is an undergraduate student at Ohio University.