Advocates of big-time intercollegiate sports often claim that the national recognition that athletic success provides helps schools achieve their other, more important academic objectives, enhancing the school’s overall reputation. Those opposing this perspective point out the names of many prestigious schools without big-time sports: M.I.T., Amherst College, and the University of Chicago are all very highly regarded institutions with distinctly minor commitments to intercollegiate athletics.

Who is right? It turns out both perspectives have merit. Consider the table. We look at average score obtained in determining the Forbes Best College Rankings for 2016, classified by the NCAA category of school. Division 1-A schools include 124 institutions, about one-half in the Power Five athletic conferences with the most athletic prowess, the other half schools with substantial commitments to sports but mostly with a lesser reputation (there are a few exceptions). Other Division 1 schools (consisting of Division 1-AA and Division 1-AAA) and Division 2 schools have a lesser sports commitment, many not even offering football, but still compete at a substantial level. Division 3 schools have sports teams, but athletics is generally low keyed, with no scholarships awarded to students exclusively for their athletic talents.

Table: Athletics Commitment and Forbes Rankings

NCAA Athletics Division Number of Schools Ave. Forbes Score Ave. Enrollment
Division 1-A 124 52.950 28,214
Division 1 –Other 159 47.838 14,450
Division 2 80 37.182 9,449
Division 3 214 52.119 4,386

The results show that the schools playing football and other sports at a high level of financial commitment (Division 1-A) do have on average very high rankings—mostly schools in the top one-fourth of the 660 schools Forbes ranks, which are done with the help of our Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Schools with a somewhat less athletics commitment—the other Division 1 and especially Division 2 schools—generally fare distinctly less well in the rankings.

But before you conclude that “big-time spending on sports is almost necessary to having a fine academic reputation” look at the results for Division 3—academic reputations are about the same as for Division 1-A. These schools have teams and play often spirited contests against one another, but do not have any pretension of national or even regional athletic greatness, spend comparatively modest sums of money, and do not buy athletes by luring students with scholarships tied to their athletic ability. The nation’s great liberal arts colleges—Pomona, Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, et cetera—are all in this category.

Note also school size. Great schools (high Forbes score) are usually rather big or rather small, less likely to be in between. Schools of 20,000 or more or 5,000 or less (usually meaning 3,000 or even fewer undergraduates) are more likely to have premier reputations than those of intermediate size.

To be sure, there are exceptions to every rule, and some large Division 1-A schools have great athletic success (the University of Alabama especially comes to mind) but only so-so academic reputations. Princeton and Notre Dame are both mid-sized schools with fine academic reputations, one, Notre Dame, with a superb reputation in sports, the other (Princeton) with little athletic prowess.

Moreover, noting an association does not mean causation. Stanford tops the Forbes list of colleges in 2016, and is pretty strong in athletics as well, but we doubt even the most enthusiastic supporter of the Stanford Cardinals would suggest that athletic success gave the school its fine academic reputation. Similar things can be said about Duke and Northwestern. Spending, say, over $200 million (as Colorado State is doing) on a stadium to try to bring the football team to the next highest level in that sport in the hopes that will trigger improved academic recognition is probably a dubious strategy at best. Probably $200 million spent on endowing scholarships or strengthening academic programs would be at least equally successful. Still, our findings do establish that academic and athletic success are not mutually exclusive.

Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), and teaches at Ohio University.

Justin Strehle is a research associate of CCAP and graduate student in economics at Ohio University.