Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman set a goal a few years back that would bring the student population in Lincoln to 30,000. Currently, the university sits just under 25,000. With the hope for growth, Perlman believed the more students on campus would provide more opportunities all around. The chancellor also believed it would give the university a little extra clout in the Big Ten.
If Chancellor Perlman truly wants to reach the goal of 30,000 students, he may just need to rely heavily on the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team.
“Well, duh,” some of you may be thinking. It’s no secret that Nebraska is a football state. With Memorial Stadium becoming the third largest city in the state on football Saturdays, there really is no question the impact the football team has in the grand scheme of things.
Now pretend it never existed. That’s right, pretend the University of Nebraska does not, and never did, have a football program. Or, instead, pretend the team wasn’t that strong and games never sold out. Would the university survive?
Sure it would. There are plenty of other sports to draw student-athletes in and the university is constantly improving. Applicant numbers would be significantly lower without the football team though. In fact, they would be about 17.7 percent lower.
Recently FootballScoop.com shared what a Harvard professor found when determining the benefits of a strong football program and what it brings to a university. Needless to say, it’s a lot.
The numbers are interesting. To match the 17.7 percent jump in applicants that a strong football program brings, a university would need to either lower tuition by 3.8 percent or recruit faculty that are paid 5.1 percent over the average rate, all according to Harvard professor Doug Chung. The price of those two combined make it clear why universities tend to lean towards the newer practice facility or the pricey coach. Those expenses can lead to a giant jump in applicants. When you’re Chancellor Perlman and you have a goal, the willingness to invest in the football program seems to be a no-brainer.
So why does a strong football program, or in some cases a football program at all, make that much of a difference? For many, it’s a tie that brings potential students to campus when they may not have had any other reason to be there.
I’m willing to use myself as an example to prove Chung’s hypothesis. When looking for a university, I had some clear guidelines: I wanted a strong journalism program and a Division I football team. Yes, you read that right. One of the two things I required to attend a university was a football program.
I like football though and I couldn’t see myself on a campus without the camaraderie of Saturday football games. I settled my choices in what was the former Big 12 – The University of Nebraska, the University of Colorado, the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas. For the sake of argument, we’ll swap Kansas’ football program for their basketball program because in this instance, they are basically interchangeable. (Although, 2007 was a strong year for their football program in some ways, but I digress.)
What I’m trying to say is that for me, a football program mattered. It mattered to a lot of fellow college hopefuls I knew that weren’t as into football as I was. Friends who couldn’t have told you the difference from a first down to a third were able to say they knew they wanted to be a part of game days. Even if it meant selling their student tickets halfway through the season to instead “watch” from a bar, they didn’t care. It was once again about the camaraderie.
Football programs bring universities together. Even the Harvards and the Yales who are touted for their academic excellence have football programs. They have their annual rivalry, which is important even if it draws more attention than it most likely deserves. The overall game could be an absolute train wreck but it still brings the masses out.
There will be many who argue the success of athletics has no bearing on the success of a University. It all depends on how you look at it, I guess. For Nebraska, the football program is as much a part of the overall college experience as anything else. So when those wondering why Chancellor Perlman and the University of Nebraska – Lincoln spend money on stadium expansions and better indoor practice facilities, it’s not hard to see why.
After all, for many universities, an athletic department with a football team is like The Gap having a store in the middle of Times Square. That one store probably doesn’t make a ton of money, but it increases the overall brand’s visibility and value as a whole in a way that makes it a necessary expenditure.
The financial state of athletic departments is constantly scrutinized, but the Huskers are doing it right. If that means putting another Gap store in Time Square, then so be it (and by Gap store, I mean practice facility and by Time Square, I mean Lincoln, Nebraska but I’m sure you got that). Ultimately, Chancellor Perlman wants more students on campus. To do so, focusing on the football program isn’t the wrong strategy. After all, Chung found even students with higher SAT scores could be persuaded by a strong football program to attend a particular university.
It doesn’t always make sense but not a lot about sports usually does. What does make sense is when you see someone else wearing a Nebraska shirt in another state and you think, “Friend.” It’s strange but it’s camaraderie and that’s where the additional 5,000 students Chancellor Perlman wants will come from. So go ahead, invest in the football program. It’ll make sense eventually.