On the second weekend in November, I was checking out the USA Today poll. The University of Alabama was ranked number one. Weber State University was ranked second. Florida State University was ranked third.
What in the world am I talking about?
I took the top teams in the USA Today poll as of the 12th week of the season. Then, I decided to see how the schools would compare against each other if a different measure of quality was utilized. I also threw Weber State into the mix.
I used data from PayScale's 2013-14 College Salary Report that provides the average salaries of the alumni of various colleges and universities. The report focuses upon alumni who are working full-time, have at least 10 years of experience in their career or field, and who hold bachelor's degrees and no higher degrees.
Based upon the alumni salary measure, the University of Alabama's alumni earn an average of $76,500, and hold on to first place. Weber State University's alumni come in at second place, earning an average of $75,600. Florida State University is third with an average salary of $73,500.
Some may be surprised that the salaries of WSU's graduates compare favorably with the alumni of these nationally-recognized universities. In fact, WSU alumni salaries rank higher than those of 600 other colleges and universities.
I also know that others will question the use of salary data for graduates to measure the quality of a college education. Clearly there are other, critically important dimensions to a college education. Salary and career success are merely one of the benefits of a college degree.
Nonetheless, career success is arguably a better metric of the value of a college education than the ability of a school's star receiver to run the 40 yard dash in 4.4 seconds.
Despite this fact, a considerable body of research has shown that the general public tends to conflate success on the playing field with perceptions of academic quality. Many assume that a university with a good football program also has a good pre-med program. Regrettably, some universities promote this myth.
When the University of Utah joined the Pac-12 Conference, school officials boasted that the move would improve the university's academic reputation. A post on the University's web site claims: "you can actually . . . demonstrate that a BCS conference athletic affiliated school is significantly more likely to be ranked in the top 50 nationally."
Claims such as this are not true. Of the 50 schools at the top of the U.S. News ranking of national universities, the vast majority (62 percent) are not affiliated with a BCS conference, and only 2 of the top 10 are BCS schools. Further, none of the U.S. News top-ranked liberal arts colleges are affiliated with a BCS conference. In reality, there is no positive relationship between athletics success and academic excellence.
The mathematically inclined will recognize this situation as one of conditional probability. For those readers, I will note that the unconditional probability of a national university's being ranked among the top 50 by U.S. News is 17.8 percent. The conditional probability of a national university, that is also a member of a BCS conference, being ranked among the top 50 falls to 15.8 percent. BCS affiliations reduce the probability of a national academic ranking. If you prefer prose to probability, I will simply mention that the University of Utah's move to the Pac-12 places them somewhere south of Yeshiva in the U.S News rankings.
Further, consider that Boston University, the University of California-Santa Barbara, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, the University of Denver, DePaul University, Hofstra University, and New York University all have outstanding reputations in the area of academics, but none of these schools has a football team. Another set of universities, including all of the Ivy League schools, play collegiate football, but they play at a division level that makes them ineligible to be considered for the national championship.
It is also important to consider that athletic rankings tend to wax and wane. This year, at least half a dozen football programs that were perennial powerhouses are struggling to have a successful season. An extreme example is the rapid decline of Penn State. In contrast, once established, academic quality tends to be far more lasting, and the individual benefits of good education last a lifetime.
Before I conclude, I need to say that I am not against college sports. In fact, I love college football. The games are both enjoyable and exciting. Moreover, absolutely nothing can do more to unite a college community than a winning team.
Also, my prior remarks about the University of Utah are not intended to denigrate the school. The University of Utah is a fine school with a great faculty.
My singular point is that athletic success does not inevitably enhance the environment for teaching and learning.
In short, you can't infer much from the football ranking beyond the quality of the football team.
So, is Weber State a ranked university? Only in the areas that matter.