Mythbuster: campus sustainability recruits more students than big time college sports. What to do? Green your college sports program.
By Dave Newport
OK, what does sustainability have to do with Doug Flutie? And who is Doug Flutie, anyway?
For those readers not so fossilized that paleontologists are already trying to identify what Giganotosaurus species you evolved from, some quick ancient history.
Eons before Facebook--or even the Internet--it was 1984 and Boston College was playing football vs. the University of Miami (Florida) on national TV. In that era Miami was a football Tyrannosaurus Rex and while BC had nearly matched UM’s teeth it looked like Miami would crawl away the victor. UM was up 45-40 with 6 seconds left. BC had the rock but a very long way to go.
Then football magic happened--or an asteroid hit the Earth.
BC’s young, undersized, untested but promising quarterback Doug Flutie lofted the ball far downfield in a classic “Hail Mary” heave. In those few seconds of flight time BC’s fans must have held hands and collectively cashed in every Karma IOU they ever had; because Doug Flutie’s pass dropped into a BC receiver’s hands to win the game for Beantown.
A few days later, college football’s highest honor, the Heisman Trophy, was dropped into Flutie’s hands.
Then a year later, BC’s admissions office got a flood of applications from prospective freshman all over the US. Applications soared 18% and another 15% two years later.
Boston College was seen as moving from respected regional university to a national brand on the strength of one great pass.
So a New Rule was born, the Flutie Effect. It goes like this: high profile football or even basketball success leads to a boom in enrollment applications, increased incoming SAT scores, and donations for the winning school.
Boston College has since reported that other factors played significant roles in these increased student applications. But no matter, right or wrong the Flutie Effect would live long past the extinction of the dinosaurs and provide meat for a College Athletics Arms Race that three decades later is still expanding. Campuses today feed their victory-hungry athletic programs with enormous sums of money, facilities, and marketing in the hopes that victory will bring home the bacon.
These days, football juggernaut Alabama rules the pitch and the championships, winning three of the last four. Head coach Nick Saban makes an Ice Age cool $5+million a year, more than any coach—and his championships deliver lots of students and money to the Crimson Tide.
And there are other more persuasive examples like formerly unheard of Butler University. In recent years Butler went from declining in everything to growing everywhere on the back of a very successful basketball program and baby faced coach, Brad Stevens. Stevens has since moved to professional basketball’s most prized job, head coach of the storied Boston Celtics, basketball’s winningest team.
So thirty years later, Doug Flutie’s perfect pass warms the heart of every campus president, development officer, coach, athletic director, and registrar.
For the sake of argument, I am going to assume the Flutie Effect is valid even though the Knight Commission for Intercollegiate Athletics has repeatedly stated there is no real research that supports this widely held belief. On the contrary, they report that the research shows no significant or lasting bump in application numbers, incoming SAT scores or donations from the Flutie effect. The Knight Commission is made up of respected college presidents, trustees, athletes, and sports journalists charged with watchdogging college sports and the NCAA but it has no real regulatory power.
Anyway, while the Knight Commission and even Boston College dispute the validity of the Flutie Effect, enough think that it is real—so we’re accepting it as something to reckon with.
The “Sustainability Effect?”
By now you have repeatedly asked yourself what all this has to do with sustainability or you have stopped reading.
Raise your hand if you have stopped reading.
OK, here’s the handoff. When he played for BC, Doug Flutie was young, relatively unknown, unheralded, cheap, full of promise, and ultimately way good for campus brand and recruiting.
In turn, campus sustainability is young, relatively unknown, unheralded, doesn’t cost a lot, shows lots of upside—and is way good for campus brand and recruiting. Indeed, in this case the research supports a “sustainability effect” on recruiting—but without the hefty price tag of big time college sports.
Here’s a quick review of sustainability-recruiting research reported in the last few years.
To be sure, the most widely reported “research” on this comes from a source some are skeptical of for various reasons, Princeton Review. Their annual poll of thousands of incoming frosh has year after year shown about two-thirds of prospective students made their buying decision of where to attend college, in part, based on their view of that campus’ sustainability acumen. Here’s this year’s data:
Many say this seems like a high number.
Indeed, a 2006 national study of 2,100 incoming freshman by Aramark Corporation found lower but still very significant numbers. Interestingly, these results put sustainability above athletics in terms of recruiting power.
Some say that’s old data and that this level of interest does not hold anymore for those schools where sustainability is not part of the core brand.
Yet a more recent 2008 UCLA study of 240,500 first-year, full-time students at 340 four-year institutions indicated that 45 percent of students said that campus adoption of green practices to protect the environment was essential or very important. Not sure if that work has been updated since 2008--but it's a huge sample size across a lot of campuses.
Then there is a 2012 survey conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute that found that 26.5 percent of entering students (from 283 institutions surveyed) reported feeling it is “essential” or “very important” to help clean up the environment. Close to 40 percent of first-year students believe it is “very important” or “essential” to adopt green practices to protect the environment.
OK, skeptics might say, that’s just a feel good.
Well, the University of Michigan—one of the nation’s top athletic programs--polled its incoming freshman last year. They were asked to rate the statement:
“UM's commitment to sustainability was an important factor influencing my decision to attend Michigan.” The results:
· Essential: 6.5%
· Very important: 20.2%
· Somewhat important: 37.8%
· Not important: 34.1%
It’s hard to summarize these data because the questions are different than others, but it looks like about 27% found sustainability very important or essential to their choice. That number matches the UCLA and Aramark data very well. But if we count the other 37.8% that found it “somewhat important,” then sustainability appears to have at least been on the minds of about two-thirds of incoming freshman at the University of Michigan. That number is more like the Princeton Review data.
I don’t know how that compares to UM’s attractiveness because of its athletic prowess, but it’s not bad. By the way, UM will spend $137.5 million on athletics this year—and net over $8.9 million in profit, one of only a handful of athletic programs to make money. It would be interesting to compare UM’s sustainability budget with athletics in terms of recruiting power per dollar spent.
On my campus, football has, well, been better in the past—but basketball has successfully pushed onto the national scene over the last few years. Likewise, sustainability has been a strength at CU Boulder for a long time. It is definitely part of our core brand and is highly visible on the front page of the campus website. In 2012 we polled our incoming freshman with this question:
Please indicate your level of agreement with the following statements: - CU's sustainability reputation and/or sustainability academic programs factored in to my decision to attend CU (rate 1-6 as follows):
· 20.05% = 1 - Strongly disagree
· 14.29% = 2
· 24.31% = 3
· 16.54% = 4
· 12.28% = 5
· 12.53% = 6 - Strongly agree
We added responses 4-6 and concluded about 41% weighed sustainability in their decision more or less. So, we are somewhere in the middle of the ranges reported in the research.
What about schools without strong athletic programs? Well, no offense to the great people there, but Tufts University probably would not intimidate a lot of traditional college sports powers. Nonetheless, they do have a rock solid sustainability program and peerless history. Their president convened the Talloires conference in 1990 and was its first signatory. Indeed, they were doing sustainability before it was cool. When I started working on the sustainability effort at the University of Florida back in the 1990s, Tufts was already an accomplished leader. And they have not stepped back from that commitment.
So, if any campus has a quality sustainability story to tell to prospective freshman, it is Tufts. And how sexy is sustainability in Somerville? Here are last year’s results:
It looks like about 37% of incoming freshman found sustainability at Tufts somewhat or very important with respect to their choice of where to go to college. It was a small sample size (121 freshman) but Tufts’ data is in the ballpark with all the other studies.
So, quick summary:
Summary of Sustainability’s Influence on College Choice*
Percent freshman indicating some level of preference for a sustainable campus
Princeton Review (2013)
University of Michigan (2012)
University of Colorado Boulder (2012)
Tufts University (2012)
* NOTE: This table is a summary of data but not a comparative analysis. Questions, sample size, methodology vary from source to source.
Bottom line: sustainability is still a hot campus-recruiting tool.
Sustainability effect and risk
Another recent UCLA study found a lot of factors influence students’ decisions of where to invest four years and tens of thousands of dollars. Happily, academic reputation shows up at the top of most of the reports scanned for this article. Athletics is down the list, Flutie effect notwithstanding. Sustainability shows up as described above; anywhere from 27 to 66% of students list it as a factor. That would put it somewhere between number 9 and number 1 on the list of selection drivers in the UCLA study above. Let’s say the Flutie effect is in there somewhere too.
So in these days of shrinking campus budgets and multiple campus selection influencers, where would be the least risky, most efficient place to invest in recruiting prospective freshmen?
Well, suppose a campus pours hundreds of millions of dollars into winning at football and basketball—and gets a recruiting bump. Great! Now, how many campuses can do this? Not a lot. Half of them cannot have winning records; the arithmetic says for every winner there’s a loser. And how many can afford it? The list is getting shorter. And how much room is there at the top of sports rankings? Is Alabama going to step aside? Stanford? Michigan? What are the odds of being the next Cinderella like Butler?
So for a campus trying to get onto the plus side of the Flutie Effect the risk may be very high. Big money. Big gamble. Only a few make it into the top tiers and fewer yet will break even or make money. If a campus signs up for the big show they better win.
On the other hand, what happens if a campus funds a sustainability program with far, far less money—and it doesn’t work? Well, first off I have never heard of a sustainability program that didn’t work—some are just more productive than others. Results are generally proportional to leadership support, funding, and local conditions.
But say they did fall short at sustainability? The financial risk is tiny. No big coaching contracts buyouts. No media black eye. No scandals. Indeed, the surviving effects of their efforts might still include energy cost savings, less waste, better community relations, happier students, better brand, etc.
Likewise, any campus can sign up for sustainability. They don’t even need an athletics program. If they do have one, that’s another place where sustainability can embed and help the campus. New research is showing the tremendous potential for fan engagement behind sports sustainability, for instance. More is on the way.
Other interesting evolutions include new, integrated sports and sustainability marketing programs aimed at leveraging sustainability with college sports visibility. This is opening new doors—and prospective sponsors’ eyes to the value of a sustainable campus and all the places to connect. As reported recently by the IEG Sponsorship Report:
“BASF Corp. [recently activated] its new partnership with the University of Michigan Athletics to support its corporate platforms of sustainability and innovation. The program includes the Team Chemistry Most Valuable Player Award, a monthly award that acknowledges one group in the athletic department that embodies the best qualities of team chemistry both on and off the field.
The chemical giant also activates the tie with the BASF Team Chemistry Challenge, a promotion that offers students the opportunity to lessen the environmental impact of home games. Entries will be judged by the school and BASF representatives, with the two organizations distributing $25,000 to the winning teams.
“The relationship between BASF and U-M will actively engage the students and the surrounding community to demonstrate how chemistry creates a sustainable future,” said Greg Pflum, BASF North America’s vice president and general manager—Midwest hub, in a statement.”
Beautiful. Go Blue!
Sports or sustainability?
I love sports, all kinds. High school, college, pro, international, Olympics, it’s all good. Sports is the world’s biggest platform for social integration and cultural understanding and the highly visible “front porch” of a campus. Sport is an experience offering lifelong lessons and strength of character, and a community-building vehicle that brings people of all stripe together for a few moments to enjoy its art, beauty, talent, competition, camaraderie, and excellence.
At its best, sport is sublime. I still remember where I was when the USA hockey team beat the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics. I screamed for days then and years later I cried at the movie about it. “Do you believe in miracles?”
Integrating sustainability into sport is a no-brainer. Brings out the best in both. I love competing with other campuses on game day sustainability, then working with all to share ideas and information. Competition breeds inspiration.
It’s not a choice between sports and sustainability. Campuses should do both as best they can. There are over 4,000 campuses in the United States. For those campuses without the wallet or desire to join the athletics arms race, sustainability is right there. For campuses with the juice, sustainability can be an even bigger factor in success.
NRDC rolled out a collegiate version of its Game Changer research at the Green Sports Alliance conference. [available here]The new trend on the leading campuses is the integration of campus sustainability, athletics, and recreation programs that combines health & wellness with learning, environmental impacts, competition, marketing, and sound fiscal practices. NRDC found over 200 campuses are getting into the sports sustainability business for lots of great reasons, not just recruiting.
Colorado’s own Missy Franklin wrote of this trend:
“Let’s face it. America is a nation of sports fanatics, and for all of us who eat, sleep, and breathe sports, environmental stewardship should be a top priority,” said Missy Franklin, four-time Olympic gold medalist and incoming freshman student athlete at the University of California Berkley.
“As [the NRDC] report shows, collegiate sports programs are recognizing this and taking control of their own sustainability.”
So move over Doug Flutie, we are now entering a new age where the young bucks understand that sports + sustainability = the future.