An explanation that college leaders sometimes give for why their institutions must play big-time sports -- and why they feel the need to pour money into big-time football and men's basketball programs to make them more competitive -- is their belief that winning teams make alumni more likely to dig into their pockets when the fund raisers come calling.
The perception persists even though numerous studies over the years have challenged the link between athletic success and giving to a college's general fund (stronger correlations have sometimes been found to giving to sports programs themselves).
Most of the research on the purported link has focused on institution-level data -- in other words, whether a college's alumni, as a group, contribute more, less or the same based on whether its teams win or lose. But a new study takes a different approach, examining giving decisions made by individual graduates at one selective institution. It finds some correlation between alumni giving and teams' on-the-field success -- but not necessarily the type of connection that would justify pouring funds into high-profile teams like football and basketball.
The study, published by the National Bureau of Economics Research, was produced by Jonathan Meer, a graduate student in economics at Stanford University and Harvey S. Rosen, an economics professor at Princeton University, who together have published several analyses of alumni giving.
This one takes data about donations made by alumni at one "selective research university" referred to as "Anon U." -- clues in the paper point to Princeton, though the researchers decline to identify it -- and matches them with extensive information from the development and registrar's offices about the graduates, including their academic major, extracurricular activities and even SAT scores from their college days, as well as post-college information about their occupations and whether they married another graduate of Anon U.
The researchers' analysis focuses on several key results.
First, they find that male alumni who played on teams while they were undergraduates are more likely to donate more (to the athletics department and to the university as a whole) when the teams they played on win conference championships (the researchers' chosen measure of on-field success) in later years. The same is not true for women.
Second, male alumni who played on teams as undergraduates tend to donate more if the teams they played on won conference championships while they were in college. (A conference title in a male alumnus's senior year, for instance, results in an 8 percent increase in giving to the athletics program.) Again, for women, the researchers found no meaningful impact of athletic performance on donations.)
Third, the researchers found that the success of the university's football and men's basketball teams had small and statistically insignificant effects on giving by non-athletes, and no effect -- and in the case of men's basketball, even a negative effect -- on giving by alums who were not athletes in college. "[W]hen alumni see success among these teams, they may believe that the school is spending too much on the athletic program, and therefore reduce their giving," the researchers speculate, echoing conjectures made by previous teams of researchers. Ditto, again, for women.
The scholars make clear that because the data are from a single institution, their findings may not apply to other colleges and universities, especially at "schools with more visible football and basketball programs" -- that's one of the aforementioned clues that suggests Princeton.
"That said, there is no reason to believe that former athletes at such institutions fail to develop an affinity for their own teams -- our results on the importance of own-team championships could very well generalize. To the extent that this is true and universities care about turning their undergraduates into future donors, it wuld seem that universities should nurture broad varsity athletic programs. To the contrary, though, many schools have been cutting less visible men's teams in order to focus more on football."