College Enrollment Lessons From the NFL

The NFL protects the game by limiting teams’ off-field competition. Should colleges do the same?

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NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 26: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stands on stage as he announces a draft selection during the 2012 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 26, 2012 in New York City.
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 26: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stands on stage as he announces a draft selection during the 2012 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 26, 2012 in New York City.

What can higher education learn from the NFL? That's the central question addressed by Jerome A. Lucido in "Lessons from the NFL for Managing College Enrollment," a paper recently released by the Center for American Progress.

Lucido, a research professor and executive director of the University of Southern California's Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, focuses on what he describes as the problem of an "alarmingly disproportionate" number of college graduates who come from the most advantaged members of society. National educational attainment statistics show that 68 percent of eighth graders who have at least one parent who graduated from college and who are in the upper-income quartile go on to earn a bachelor's degree; only 9 percent of those in the lower-income quartile and who do not have a parent with a degree do so.

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Lucido, under whom the center is devoted to the social benefit of enrollment policies and practices in higher education, focuses on enrollment management as a key—if little-known—driver of this inequality in educational attainment.

Enrollment management is an emerging field that consists of the complex system of methodologies that "determine who is recruited, who merits admission, who receives student aid and of what variety, which classes are offered and when, and what kind of assistance is provided to students."

Part of that complexity stems from the attempt to balance the broader social mission of colleges and universities—including their role in providing an education to the underserved—against the need to stay financially afloat while "engaged in intense competition with each other" and "engulfed in a costly marketing battle for recognition in rankings that most generally consider poor measures of educational quality," according to the study.

These competing goals result in practices that give privileged students an advantage and deter less fortunate ones, Lucido argues. For example, colleges engaged in heated competition are loath to share information, but accurate and public information about the likelihood of admission, success, and financial assistance would help prevent "undermatching," the tendency of lower-income students to "not apply to colleges that would otherwise have accepted them and from which they would have a better chance of graduating."

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The need for colleges to remain solvent also puts poorer students at a disadvantage, especially in a time of significant national and state disinvestment. That need helps drive an ever-escalating rise in tuition; forces many colleges to seek out students who can pay the full cost of tuition; focuses recruitment on wealthier geographic areas; and promotes the use of student aid as a discount to attract applicants who can still pay a significant portion of their tuition. An increasing amount of financial aid is used as merit scholarships "to recruit sought-after students for both educational and marketing positioning" or to retain talented students in state.

Structural and positioning incentives such as these have, in Lucido's opinion, created an arms (and tuition) race in which colleges and universities with the most resources "outspend their competitors for the best students, the best faculty, the best facilities, and create the best campus experiences." This "no-holds-barred competition … places them in constant danger of valuing prestige and ranking over mission attainment; market position over educational results."

Lucido contrasts this competition between universities to the NFL where salary caps, roster limits, and revenue sharing control overall costs and permit small-market teams to compete with those in larger markets. While the competition "on the field" remains intense, off the field the league enforces rules that promote the common good.

Similarly, Lucido proposes a higher education league that would limit "wasteful or harmful competition."

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Among the rules this league could promote and enforce are the publication of accurate, consistent, and verifiable data relevant to student decision making. These data could include admission and graduation rates based on academic record, income, ethnicity, and geography. The league could also standardize application deadlines and notification periods as well as introduce measures of a school's quality that take into account how students achieve given how prepared they were to enter college.

League schools could also put strategies in place to allow students of all income levels to apply and be successful at all schools, such as reducing by a set percentage the amount of funding that goes to non-need-based aid and by engaging in joint fundraising for student aid, which would benefit schools with the most needy students.

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Realistic or not—and certainly the proposal would face institutional resistance and potential anti-trust charges—Lucido's depiction of a system that "has swung too far from the needs of the public in the pursuit of prestige and position" is one that resonates.

The Student Loan Ranger is a strong advocate for restoring and increasing state and national aid to institutions of higher education, especially as we slowly emerge from the shadows of the Great Recession. In return, demanding those institutions take real and concerted steps to fulfill their public mission at least as well as the NFL is not unreasonable.

Isaac Bowers is a senior program manager in the Communications and Outreach unit, responsible for Equal Justice Works's educational debt relief initiatives. An expert on educational debt relief, Bowers conducts monthly webinars for a wide range of audiences; advises employers, law schools, and professional organizations; and works with Congress and the Department of Education on federal legislation and regulations. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, he was a fellow at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP in San Francisco. He received his J.D. from New York University School of Law.