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By Kaitlin Mulhere
March 9, 2017
Stanford Cardinal Erica McCall celebrates after the women's Pac 12 championship game on March 5, 2017.
Stanford Cardinal Erica McCall celebrates after the women's Pac 12 championship game on March 5, 2017.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

How did we choose the best colleges for sports lovers?

To find colleges where athletes would enjoy playing, fans would enjoy exciting competitions, and both groups would get a top-notch education, Money and Sports Illustrated started with the 705 colleges that both made the cut in Money’s annual Best Colleges ranking and are NCAA members. (Money’s Best Colleges get ranked on 24 factors that measure educational quality, affordability, and alumni success; to see a full methodology for that ranking, see here.)

For each of those colleges, we zeroed in on 15 different factors that illustrated the school’s overall sports culture—and we removed any schools that were missing four or more of those data points. That left a universe of 606 colleges. We then ranked the remaining colleges based on their scores in three areas: the overall Best Colleges rank (20%), student athlete opportunities (40%), and fan experience (40%).

Two pieces of data—recent national and conference championships—factored into both the student athlete and fan experience, since both athletes and fans want to be associated with winning teams.

Here’s a further breakdown of what’s in each bucket:

Athlete Opportunities (40% of total)

  • Graduation rate for student athletes, counted per federal guidelines: 15%
  • Participation rate in varsity-level student athletics: 15%
  • Number of alumni on U.S. teams during the past four Olympic Games: 10%
  • Number of national championships won in the past 10 seasons, through the fall 2016 season: 10%
  • Number of alumni who are currently playing professionally in five major sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, MLS): 10%
  • Number of intercollegiate sports offered on campus: 10%
  • Having a major NCAA infraction in the past 5 years: 10% (reduces overall score)
  • Average athletic scholarship per female athlete: 7.5%
  • Average athletic scholarship per male athlete: 7.5%
  • Number of conference championships won in the past 10 seasons, through the fall 2016 season: 5%

Fan Experience (40% of total)

  • Average game attendance per capita for at least one of the following: football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball: 25%
  • Number of intramural sports offered on campus: 15%
  • Student rating of athletic scene on campus, from 15%
  • Number of national championships won in the past 10 years, through the fall 2016 season: 10%
  • Donations to endowments tied to athletics as a share of total 2016 donations: 7.5%
  • Donations to current operations for athletic spending as a share of total 2016 donations: 7.5%
  • Number of arenas within a 25-mile radius where students can watch professional sporting events: 5%
  • Total number of dollars donated in 2016 for current athletic spending: 5%
  • Number of sports-related majors available to study on campus: 5%
  • Number of conference championships won in the past 10 years, through the fall 2016 season: 5%

Further Notes on Data

Championships: National championships and conference championships were collected by hand from the NCAA website and individual conference championships. We only counted conference championships for Division I colleges because the level of competition among Division I conferences was more even than that among many smaller conferences in divisions II and III.

Federal graduation rate for student athletes: Division I and Division II colleges are required to follow federal guidelines in reporting the 6-year graduation rate for student athletes. We used the graduation rate for teams from the cohort of students that started college in 2005-2008, based on data from the NCAA. Division III colleges are excluded from this requirement, so we substituted the overall student body graduation rate from the same time period, based on data from the U.S. Department of Education. The NCAA also collects a separate graduation success rate and academic success rate for Division I and Division II, respectively. We ultimately chose not to include those, as critics say those rates inflate the number of athletes who actually go on to earn a college degree.

Average athletic scholarships: Division III colleges are not allowed to award scholarship money based on athletic ability, per NCAA regulations. As a result, Division III colleges were excluded from this data point. We used a formula that allowed us to skip this data point for Division III colleges and reapportion the 15% given to athletic aid evenly across all other data points in the student athlete opportunity bucket.

Average attendance: The NCAA only publishes attendance figures for certain sports, and publishes more for Division I teams than for Division II or Division III. To get as complete a picture as possible, we looked at three sports—football and men’s and women’s basketball. We took the average of two or three if multiple attendance figures were reported. Otherwise we used one sport. There were still 186 colleges without attendance figures. For those, we used a formula that allowed us to skip this data point and reapportion the 25% given to attendance across all other data points in the fan experience bucket.

Donations: We counted donations in two ways. To measure how donors and universities’ fundraising staffs prioritize athletics, we looked at sports-related donations as a share of the total amount of money raised by a school. We also scored colleges based on the total dollar amount they raised, in order to reward colleges that have the most cash to reinvest in their athletics program.

A Final Note on Academic Scandals

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of our top-ranking colleges. We discussed removing it from the ranking, as we were hesitant to endorse a college still reeling from one of the most far-reaching academic scandals involving athletes. Other colleges near the top of the list also have had major athletic scandals in recent years. Ultimately, we decided that since we were already penalizing colleges for NCAA infractions (and in this case, the NCAA hasn’t punished UNC yet), we would not single out individual colleges to remove.

Source list: National Collegiate Athletic Association data on academics, championships, infractions, and attendance; U.S. Olympic Committee; Peterson’s; Equity in Athletics Data Analysis from the U.S. Department of Education;; Council for Aid to Education.