WHY DO COLLEGES so naturally lend themselves to ranking? Perhaps it's higher education's inherent embrace of debate, rendering each bit of knowledge and instruction as potential Socratic fodder. Or maybe rankings simply give us some data to support our my-school-is-better-than-your-school arguments. Regardless, lists have emerged as the lingua franca of intercollegiate comparison, with spots on every index from Playboy's Top 10 Party Schools to the AP Top 25 the subject of near-constant contention.
This year, SI and MONEY have teamed to create a ranking of our own: The Best Colleges for Sports Lovers. Like any other entry in the genre, its formulation begins with a question: What makes a good sports college? Sure, Final Four berths and bowl wins are nice, as are arenas packed to the rafters. But do opportunities to participate match the chances to spectate? Where can merely good high school athletes suit up for their school, and where might doing so help foot the tuition bill? And where do athletes stand the best chance of graduating?
Such were among the considerations when we ranked 606 NCAA schools based on 19 factors ranging from professional athletes produced and recent national championships won to varsity participation rates and ranking on MONEY's annual Best Colleges list. Many of our findings will not surprise. It requires no advanced degree to understand how No. 1 Stanford—with its bushels of Olympians, outstanding academic rep and championship traditions in tennis, rowing and water polo—would shine. The rest of the top five (Notre Dame, Michigan, Duke and UVA) will likewise feel familiar. But things get interesting a bit further down the list, as tiny Davids topple D-I Goliaths in ways March Madness could never dream. Bowdoin two spots ahead of UCLA? Colgate over Wisconsin? Middlebury College in the top 10?!
The uproar will ring from Tuscaloosa to Eugene, but the college sports experience is about more than all-day tailgates and national-TV broadcasts. The ratings system is too byzantine to fully explain, but here's a sense of how the results came about. After allotting 20% of each school's score to its overall ranking on the MONEY list, we devoted the remaining 80% to factors grouped in two buckets: fan experience and student-athlete opportunity. So while Nebraska students may have a blast in the bleachers (the school ranks 23rd in athletics attendance, and ratings on the quality of NU's athletics by its own students place it 26th on the website Niche), their university ranks just 90th overall due to weaker scores for student-athletes: varsity participation rate (490th), number of varsity sports offered (248th) and federal graduation rate (298th). On the other hand, what Division III Amherst College (enrollment: 1,850) lacks in city-sized stadiums, it makes up for with its athletic attendees' success on the field (21st in recent national championships, most recently men's soccer in 2015) and off it (seventh in grad rate), resulting in its No. 27 overall placement.
A little skepticism may be natural. Nicole Wilkerson initially had some too. In 2001 the Rice alum and former assistant cross-country coach at Texas A&M interviewed for an assistant position at Middlebury (enrollment: 2,450) after her husband took a job at nearby Vermont. She was charmed by the small school and landed the gig, ascending to head coach in '11. In Wilkerson's 16 years on staff, the program has won its conference eight times and the D-III national title five. Along the way she has been continually impressed by the school's support and the athletes' dedication, both of which help explain Middlebury's marks in national championships (30th) and graduation (15th). "When Middlebury College does something, they're gonna do it well," Wilkerson says. "They jump in with both feet."
Smaller schools do not score well solely for accommodating athletes. Some have sports-crazy student bodies to match the most fanatic SEC schools'. Consider Augustana University, a Lutheran liberal arts school of 1,900 in Sioux Falls, S.D. Augustana ranks 28th in fan-experience metrics, thanks in large part to its array of sports-related majors and to its 36th place in per capita attendance at football and basketball games. With more than a fifth of students involved in athletics, it's hard for an Augustana undergrad not to know someone on a team. "That puts us in a unique position to cheer on people we consider friends," says junior Max Boyum.
Unfortunately student and athlete friendship eludes our quantification, so we'll have to take Boyum's word. Like all college rankings, though, everything else is open to questioning. Let the debate begin.
Further down the list, tiny Davids topple D-I Goliaths in ways March Madness could never dream.
Faces in the Crowd
The Case for
To see the Top 25 schools and read how they set themselves apart, go to SI.com/best-schools
Ranks, respectively, for UCLA and Texas, the schools that topped SI's sports-college rankings in the April 27, 1997, and the Oct. 7, 2002, issues. Four schools—Florida, Michigan, North Carolina and Stanford—have been in the top 10 all three times.
Ole Miss 312
Rank of Mississippi (SEC), the lowest among Power 5 conference schools. Next lowest is Kansas State (Big 12) at 251.
Rank of D-II Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., the lowest on the SI/MONEY list.
Division III schools in the top 100, including Amherst (No. 27), McDaniel College (51) and Messiah College (99).