Does UCLA Football's Culture of Mediocrity Have Effects in the Classroom?

Royce Hall, UCLA
For years, UCLA football fans faced with diseased culture of mediocrity have been able to console themselves that at least UCLA's academics are better than USC's.  That may have been the case years ago, but lately, UCLA's academic standing has remained relatively stagnant, while USC's has improved.  While this notion may be an anathema to some, it's worth wondering whether USC's football success (although it was more professional football than collegiate) contributed to USC's improved academic standing.  More after the jump.

Under the leadership of Steven Sample, USC rose from 41st in the US News & World Report rankings in 1999 to 27th in 2008 and 26th in 2010, Sample's last year.  USC is now ranked 23rd, ahead of UCLA at 25.  Yes, these ratings are controversial and can be gamed, but it seems clear that USC had a goal of improving its standing in these rankings and was able to do so.  This is important because it definitely plays a major role in the consciousness of high school students deciding where to apply for admission and ultimately, attendance:

So to the story headline, what's beyond football. Well, it's no accident that once SUC started winning, their academic rankings have shot up. I know, it's disputable, but you can't deny they're making a move.

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Working within the school system, I can assure you that SUC's popularity among teachers and counselors have gone up dramatically. Countless high school students are being encouraged to apply year after year, something that was exclusive to UCLA. I know, most counselors are clueless and don't know better, but again, it affects our rankings (which no matter how meaningless to us, it matters to the donors and alumni).

UCLA's US News ranking has been essentially stagnant at 25 or 26 since 1999. UCLA was ranked as high as 16 and 17 in 1990 and 1991, but has not approached that level in recent years.

An interesting note is that USC's rise in the rankings coincided with the end of UCLA's 8 game winning streak in the battle for the Victory Bell.  UCLA has only won the bell once since 1999.  Meanwhile, USC's football program was also improving (with the help of numerous NCAA violations, of course) as USC's records from 1999 to 2010 were 7-5, 5-7, 6-6, 11-2, 12-1, 13-0* (not taking into account vacated games), 12-1*, 11-2, 11-2, 12-1, 9-4, and 8-5.  During the same time period, UCLA was 5-6, 6-6, 7-4, 8-5, 6-7, 6-6, 10-2, 7-6, 6-7, 4-8, 7-6, 4-8.

What's the point of all this?  Is there a correlation between the football performance of the two schools and their academic performance?  What seems indisputable is that USC made a concerted effort to improve its standing on the football field and in the academic reputation of the school, and succeeded in achieving winning football records and improvement in the US News rankings.  Moreover, studies have suggested that athletic success increases applications for admission as much as a 2-8 percent increase for the top 20 football schools and top 16 basketball schools:

Fraternal researchers Jaren and Devin Pope recently completed their study of the impact of college sports success on admissions, finding that the number of applications increases between 2 percent and 8 percent for the top 20 football schools and top 16 basketball schools each year.

The variation in the percentages can be attributed to the schools' rankings in their respective sports. For example, the team finishing first in either sport will likely experience the 8 percent applicant pool increase, whereas the schools finishing 16th or 20th will see the 2 percent rise.

So it's worth questioning whether the diseased culture of mediocrity in the athletic department and of the football program share common underlying causes with the stagnation of UCLA's standing int he US News Rankings.  Don't get me wrong, UCLA's academics are decidedly not mediocre.  Indeed, by many measurements, UCLA's academics remain well ahead of USC's. 

UCLA placed 12th in the prestigious Academic Ranking of World Universities issued last month by the Center for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, one spot higher than last year. UCLA's position as the second-highest ranked public university was unchanged.

Washington Monthly rated UCLA second, up one spot from last year, in its annual rankings, which came out in August.

For example, Forbes ranks UCLA at 55 and USC at 165 (for comparison, Cal was 70).  However, the same mentality that severely handicaps the football program seems to be undermining the university's ability to improve its standing in some of the influential college rankings.  The bottom line is that the administration can no longer pat itself on the back and reassure itself that UCLA's undeniable academic standing justifies mediocrity on the football field.

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