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As football teams win, male students' grades lose

Winning Football, Falling Grades
December 20, 2011

The lists of arguments for and against big-time college football programs are both long.

Supporters cite the revenue many programs generate, the binding effect the teams can have for alumni, students and others, and the increased attention the teams can bring to their institutions (which, scandals aside, is often publicity that money can't buy). The list of "cons" to counter those "pros" includes compromises in admissions (to enroll the best players) and academic rigor (to keep them eligible to play), misalignment of resources (like putting players up at hotels before home games when library hours are being cut), and the same publicity when scandal (inevitably?) erupts.

A new study released Monday by the National Bureau for Economic Research suggests adding one item to the latter list: Winning football teams make male students stupider.

Okay, that's not quite accurate. Male students don't actually get stupider if their football teams win more; their grades just drop.

The authors of the study (which NBER requires a subscription to read, but which is available on the researchers' website here), two economists and a graduate student at the University of Oregon, examined student transcript data from the institution, whose football team competes in the Pacific-12 Conference in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's highest level for football, the Football Bowl Series Division. The authors -- Glen R. Waddell, an associate professor, Jason M. Lindo, an assistant professor, and Isaac D. Swensen, a graduate student -- tracked the fall grade point averages for non-athlete undergraduates at Oregon from 1999 to 2007 as the football team's victory totals ebbed and flowed, some years winning almost all, and sometimes fewer than half, of its games.

Their basic analysis shows that "a 25 percent increase in the football team's winning percentage (or three additional wins) leads males to earn GPAs as if their SAT scores were 27 points lower." Additional analyses (seeking to control for grade inflation, number of credits taken, and other factors) show varying degrees of diminished academic performance by men, but in all cases male students saw their grades dip in relation to female students there as the football team won more.

"Three extra wins in a season increases the gender gap [in student grades] by about 8 percent," Lindo said in an interview.

To try to answer the question why, the economists -- whose overall research focuses on the effects of access to alcohol on academic success -- asked students who had been at Oregon for at least two years a series of questions about their football fandom and how they behave (in terms of drinking, studying, and the like) after wins and losses.

Both genders acknowledge changing their behavior in response to football wins and losses, but "men are more likely to respond that they drink more when team wins, party more when the team wins, study less when team wins," Lindo said. "Women respond similarly, but not as much."

Lindo and his colleagues suspect that the academic underperformance might be even greater than the GPA analysis suggests, given that at Oregon, as at many institutions, grading is done on a curve. If all students scored lower on tests after football wins because they partied more and studied less, Lindo said, the overall grade point average might not fall significantly, because professors might continue to give the same number of As and Bs and Cs.

"Ideally, what we would love to know is what were the raw test scores, which would be unfiltered and unaffected by any curve," he said. "But we don't have access to those."

 

 

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