Posted in Rants on October 7th, 2013 by Ed

Say you were the president of a large, middling public university and you had to find a way to compensate for declining state funding. If your first reaction is, "We should build a $246,000,000 football stadium for our thoroughly mediocre team!" then you might have a future in university administration, at least at Colorado State University.

In much the same way that "Tax cuts create jobs!" is an article of faith among conservatives despite all evidence to the contrary, "The athletic program will draw out-of-state students" is an article of faith among the university brass. State universities rarely have trouble attracting enough in-state enrollment, as "cheap and close to home" are two powerful selling points for the parents of college-bound students. However, what universities and state legislatures really love are the out-of-state students who can be socked for two, three, even four times as much tuition. State legislators know that their constituents will be angry if in-state tuition rises. And the people affected by out-of-state tuition don't vote for the Colorado state legislature so the political cost is zero.

The question, however, is what would draw kids from other states to Colorado State. No offense to CSU, which I'm sure has fine programs, but there isn't much to make it stand out among the hundreds of other similar, and often cheaper, public universities. People from all over the country will apply to elite schools like UC-Berkeley or Michigan, but the many universities that fall into the Average category are nearly indistinguishable. What distinguishes Colorado State from Washington State from Illinois State from Southern Florida? We could argue that one is as good as any other, and therein lies the rub.

Despite low attendance (sub-30,000) at the current stadium, CSU boosters appear to think that a quarter-billion dollar 40,000 seater will soon be filled with fans and drawing in students from all over. This logic is questionable at best for reasons that should be obvious. The string of assumptions is perilously thin – that great football stars will start choosing CSU because of its stadium, that the team will become a powerhouse, and that a good team will bring in students from California and so on. That certainly could work. It also very easily might not work. There are dozens of other big universities trying the same trick, many of which – Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama, Auburn, Wisconsin, Ohio State, UCLA, and so on – are quite good at it, way ahead of an upstart program, and, not insignificantly, not located in Fort Collins, CO.

The science of trying to define what high school kids look for when choosing a college is the closest thing to alchemy that one can get paid to do these days. It's tough to model irrational or quasi-rational decision making, and who knows what combination of factors will or will not bring more applications to CSU. What is certain is that the $250 million stadium will be an enormous yoke around the university's neck for years to come, and it might be a crushing burden if it hosts half-empty football games. Having a big-time athletic program is indeed a good drawing card, but CSU's booster appear to be overestimating the ease with which an Alabama-caliber football program can be built.