It may be hard to build a good college football team without college students
Two other trends may pose demographics problems for several FBS schools.
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Anyway, let’s talk about some deep nerd stuff today.
A trade war might cause your alma mater to lose a bunch of money
As state support and other funding sources for universities declined while expenses kept going up, many schools decided to heavily recruit foreign students. That strategy makes a ton of sense! After all, a diverse student body creates meaningful opportunities for cultural exchange, enriches the lives of the whole campus community, AND those students are more likely to pay full tuition, making it a little easier to give a discount to local students. The whole thing can work out well for everybody.
A huge chunk of those international students, especially at major universities out West, come from China. According to Bloomberg, about a third of all international students are Chinese (about 360,000 total, nationwide). But there’s concern that the pipeline of students could be disrupted, thanks to federal policies. Also from Bloomberg:
The Trump administration, though, has restricted access to student visas on concern that its biggest rival is exporting what it considers to be a growing threat to the American government, industry and the economy more broadly: spies. The suspicion is feeding a crackdown on students and even cancer and other researchers at leading institutions, which has led to worries that America is descending into a new Cold War-like Red Scare.
More than 80% of colleges and universities surveyed by the Institute of International Education said delays and denials have had a negative impact on their ability to enroll international students. Enrollment was flat from the 2016-17 academic year to 2017-18, while the Chinese student population increased 3.6%, the smallest gain in a decade.
The Chinese government, for what it’s worth, is warning students about the risks of studying in America right now. So that’s probably not great.
I’m not expecting the Chinese student population to drop to zero in two years or anything, but even a modest decline could have significant implications for several schools. The Pac-12’s much maligned strategy to increase their presence in China, after all, was built in part to help attract more Chinese students. USC reportedly has over 1,000 Chinese undergraduates. Arizona State, UCLA, Illinois and Purdue recruit international students heavily. Other public schools, maybe not quite as much.
Where’s the college football angle here, you might ask? After all, even with global recruiting increasing every year, scouring China for defensive tackles isn’t part of the FBS football blueprint. And even though international recruiting is growing in college football every year, players from outside the United States represent only a tiny fraction of FBS football players each recruiting cycle.
Here’s the thing though: if you’re suddenly losing a few hundred kids paying $40,000 or more a year, you have to make up that revenue somewhere. Either the state (or donors) need to pony up, you recruit more domestic rich people, you raise fees (which could price out potential fans/donors from attending the school), or you cut costs. Even if those cuts don’t impact athletics, it becomes a bit harder for the athletic department to ask for general fundraising help from the university at large, if the rest of the school is hurting for money.
Making it easy for international students to enter the country and study at American universities has some significant financial advantages for big schools. If that gets compromised, how schools look to make up that money is going worth monitoring.
Which states are bleeding students?
This is just a working theory here. I don’t have 100% of the data to prove it, but I think it certainly passes the sniff test.
I think if you’re a college football program hoping to recruit your local area successfully, you need some real sidewalk fans. Folks who didn’t necessarily attend the school, but are fans of the program, are engaged with the program, and help sell that program.
Ohio State fandom, for example, isn’t restricted to just those who hold degrees from the school. Almost everybody in the state, outside of maybe some pockets in Toledo or Cincinnati, is a Buckeye fan by default. That dynamic is true all over the South, the Midwest, and even parts of the Mountain West.
In places where that doesn’t exist, I think it’s much harder to keep talented local recruits…local.
One school that has historically struggled with this is Illinois. Now, Illinois isn’t Ohio or Michigan or Texas or anything, but the Chicago and St.Louis suburbs produce plenty of Big Ten caliber football players, and it’s very difficult for the Illini to get the talent they need to compete in the top half of the league without securing the local kids.
Right now, Illinois just has a single commitment among the top 20 recruits in the state. But as it turns out, the state is doing a lousy job of keeping ANY talent local.
Figures released by the Illinois Board of Higher Education show that 48.4 percent of Illinois public high school graduates enrolled in four-year universities in 2017 attended out-of-state institutions.
That’s up from 46.6 percent in 2016 and about 45 percent in 2015.
That figure has steadily climbed over the past two decades, according to state data. As recently as 2002, only 29.3 percent of Illinois high school graduates went to out-of-state, four-year colleges.
Yup, Illinois exports college students at a higher clip than nearly anybody else in the country. New Jersey’s dynamic is almost as bad, and wouldn’t you know it, Rutgers also can’t keep top local talent from going elsewhere.
There’s a few reasons why this is happening in Illinois. For one, a series of budget problems over the last few years hit state higher education particularly hard. Chicago State nearly closed. Other schools across the system saw their credit ratings drop, their ability to give scholarships decreased, and the ability to invest and recruit was hamstrung. It’s going to take time to dig out of that. Why pay more to go to Northern Illinois when you can go somewhere just as good, or better, just across the state line a few hours away, for less money?
There’s also the fact that Illinois doesn’t have many public options for high achieving students. Other schools across the Midwest have multiple, selective options (Michigan and Michigan State…Ohio State and Miami (OH)…Indiana and Purdue, etc). Illinois is an excellent school, but if a kid doesn’t go there and wants to stay local, they don’t have many other options.
The Illinois Institute of Technology, located on the South Side of Chicago, sits in the 90s range in the US News rankings. There are no other public universities in the US News Top 100. The University of Illinois at Chicago is ranked #129 in national universities, Illinois State is #171, and all the others are sub 200.
This is a big reason why, a few years ago, some Illinois lawmakers wanted to find a way to get another Illinois school in the Big Ten. We all laughed at them, because lmao could you imagine, but they did at least correctly diagnose a problem.
This is where I’m taking a bit of a leap here, but I suspect if you have a student from like, Joliet or something, and they go to Eastern Illinois and stick around the state for the next 20 years, there’s still a chance they might become an Illinois fan. But if that student goes off to say, Western Michigan, or Marquette, or Bowling Green…it’s probably not happening. Same with Rutgers. Same with other schools in the Northeast.
Obviously, both of these trends have plenty of implications far more important than college football. I’m an Illinois taxpayer, after all, and I’d love for more talented students to be educated and stay here for dozens of reasons beyond “it might make Illinois a little better at football.” Maybe a local grad sticks around and figures out how to solve our pension crisis. Or learns how to make our weather less ass. You know…our big problems.
But this is a college football newsletter. This sport doesn’t exist entirely outside the higher education ecosystem, and if other developments have negative impacts on the institution, it’s going to make it much harder for the school to do what it needs to do to help football be successful.
Here are a few other interesting nuggets I’d like to share with you today
BYU Media Day came and went without real ESPN deal updates. The school reiterated that a deal is happening, but they’re still negotiating over bowl arrangements. That was a little surprising to me, but these things happen.
Illinois is highly likely to start a men’s hockey program, bringing the Big Ten to eight teams (including Notre Dame, because college hockey is weird), but they’re not quite ready to officially announce the program yet. I’m bullish about college hockey in the Midwest. BTN is a great TV partner for the games, it’s an exciting product, and even has the potential to be profitable. But the start-up costs are significant. Illinois will need to build a big ol’ expensive new arena to house the team, and that’s not quite ready.
Apropos of nothing, but if you’re interested in a college football book that has nothing to do with college football, I highly recommend The Breaks of the Game, by David Halberstam, which is about the 1979-1980 Portland Trail Blazers. A huge theme of the book is the NBA’s transition to being a TV-centered entity, and the consequences of that huge influx of TV money and influence on fans, coaches, GMs, and everybody who touched the league. While The 50 Year Seduction is the opus on how TV changed modern college football, I think any CFB fan who reads Breaks will see the similarities. Plus, it’s just a damn good sports book, and there aren’t that many of them.