This is Part III in Engineering a Program, our series on explaining Georgia Tech’s athletic context to outsiders. If you’d like to read other parts of the series or get a primer on what the series is about, head to its homepage.
Reducing Georgia Tech’s athletic recruitment issues to its engineering curriculum and rigor is, well, reductive: there are several deeper cultural factors at play not related to the Institute’s academics. Much like the admissions process at Tech, holistic review might be the most effective way to evaluate and deconstruct the unique state of play at Tech, and the best place to start with such a review would be the relationship between athletics and the student body itself.
Student and Alumni Interest
Major athletics performances over the last 20 years have been inconsistent at best and mediocre more often than not — look at the football program for the perfect microcosm. Over the past 22 seasons since 2000, 10 have finished with a middling five, six, or seven wins. Tech made plenty of bowls in that period (17 to be exact), but posted a disappointing 6-11 record once there. It held an AP Top 25 ranking at some point in 11 of the 22 seasons, but finished the season with a ranking in just five. The two 10-win seasons (2009 and 2014) were both immediately followed by losing seasons.
This kind of mediocrity is atrocious for creating an environment of sustained interest and investment from both students and alumni — there’s just nothing to build on. Good programs create future success from current success, while bad programs can use failures as catalysts for change. Being in the middle means you just exist and in many ways that’s the worst outcome.
Based on our collective experience as recent grads, this lack of consistent success has led to students at Tech falling into any one of four groups (rough anecdotal breakdown provided):
- Those who are very invested in the athletic programs (~15%). Often having higher participation in other aspects of campus life (clubs, sports and design-build teams, Greek organizations, etc.), this group actively follows at least the football program and comprises the majority of the student representation on gamedays.
- Those who attend some football or basketball games as social programming (~55%). They might not be particularly invested in what’s happening, but they go because their friends go. This group also contains the set of students who show up to football games midway through the first quarter and leave at halftime.
- Those who are apathetic to the existence of athletic programs on campus (~25%). They’re probably not attending games and they’re certainly not engaging with athletics outside of the events.
- The small group who are extremely upset that Tech has athletics programs in the first place (~5%). They can’t understand why the Institute would spend any money on sports instead of just academics.
This breakdown isn’t necessarily unfamiliar territory at other institutions who market themselves as more academically focused (see: attendance issues at Stanford and Vanderbilt), but it would be downright foreign to most of the large schools in our geographic vicinity. Schools like the one in Athens need to run a lottery for football tickets because there’s an overwhelming demand from the student body, while Tech often has trouble filling its student section on some gamedays. This breakdown presents a very real hurdle to building a large roster of long-term fans, and therefore long-term donors.
Part of this of comes down to the pool of students that Tech considers. Via the popular Common Application and other avenues, Tech has been able to vastly expand its applicant pool in recent years. 2012 saw a little less than 15,000 applicants while in 2022, that number has exploded to over 50,000 — all thanks to the Common A. This is great for the business of college academics but given that seats are limited, the admissions department has (naturally) become more and more selective, refining its formula to optimize for a certain type of applicant that applies to engineering institutions of similar stature (e.g. Stanford, MIT, and Cal). The jump in applicants from 2012 to 2022 resulted in a decline in acceptance rate from ~55% to ~17%. The average Tech freshman posted a 1187 SAT score (out of a total of 1600) in 1990. In 2000, it hit 1330. In 2010, it was 1375. Today, it’s 1417. It’s important to note there are differences in how the test was conducted and scored in each decade as well as various issues with using the SAT as a barometer for intelligence. However, it seems reasonable to use the evolution of these scores as at least a proxy to examine the overall competitiveness of the admissions process and the profile of Tech’s target applicant. The 2020 SAT averages for our sample schools above are as follows: 1485 at Stanford (no data available for 1990-era admissions), 1545 at MIT (1383 in 1992), and 1430 at Cal (1187 in 1988). While Tech’s average clocks in at just under these, it’s within shooting distance of two of them and it seems reasonable to suggest both that applicants to these three are considering Georgia Tech and that Georgia Tech is also considering them.
Furthermore, the students that Tech desires aren’t always from the state of Georgia — as of Fall 2020 only ~35% of Tech students (in both undergraduate and graduate programs) are in-state students, while ~25% are international and the remaining ~40% are from the rest of the United States. Today’s in-state and international enrollment numbers stand in stark contrast to the same marks from Fall 1990, where ~59% of students were in-state and ~9% were international. There are of course a few caveats to these numbers to point out:
- These are enrollment numbers and not on-campus attendance numbers. A considerable portion of international students may not even be on campus, having enrolled in programs like the online Master’s in Analytics (OMSA) or online Master’s in Computer Science (OMSCS).
- As of 2020, international students make up ~36% of graduate students and ~9% of undergraduate students. Considering that international students will therefore be overrepresented in these aggregate numbers, if our goal is to get a realistic picture of on-campus trends, it may be prudent to identify a different proxy. Looking instead at undergraduate degrees conferred, ~66% of all degrees awarded in Spring 1990 went to in-state students, while only ~3% went to international students and the remaining ~31% to out-of-state students. In 2020, in-state students made up ~58% of undergraduate degrees, while international students collected only ~9% with the ~36% balance once again going to out-of-state students. There’s a significant change here as well, albeit one that is less jarring.
- Nothing here runs afoul of current trends in the money-driven college industry where other institutions have been prioritizing international and out-of-state students because of their higher tuition revenues.
Still, even with these caveats, the narrative on Tech’s applicant profile seems fairly clear: admissions prioritizes admitting students with high-caliber educational profiles, often from places that are not the state of Georgia. Now, is it fair to say that this profile is what is causing a lack of long-term athletic program support? Not necessarily: that would be painting with far too wide of a brush. That being said, even students from the state of Georgia have bring the affiliations of their childhood, influenced by their parents, friends, and the media that they consume, to campus. Today, those can be influenced by domestic migration from the North or around the Southeast, but it is just as likely to be exposure to the prominent brand of the school 70 miles to the east of Atlanta. On the flip side of the same coin, out of state students with minimal knowledge of Tech’s athletics prior to attending or international students that could have little exposure to American sports can and do become incorporated into the Tech fandom.
Instead, let’s put it like this: the modern Tech student expects the Institute to have facilities and services commensurate with other out-of-state institutions of similar stature. Tech has a lot of other things that money can be spent on, and if one thinks that athletics is hoovering up institutional funds away from other projects, as some seem to, then it’s possible said student may see athletics as a waste of money. It’s also not entirely unreasonable for someone to see a struggling asset that costs a lot of money, look at another campus service that’s chronically underfunded, and ask, “Why are we wasting our time and money on this that thing?” The crux of it is this: if you’re diluting the potential that incoming students are already invested or have an established fandom, and middling results in the most prominent programs in particular don’t do anything to convince people to love Tech athletics while they’re here, there is high potential to be stuck in a negative feedback loop.
It’s this synthesis of chronic athletic inconsistency, an evolving student profile, and a changing list of student priorities that has Tech in a particularly precarious predicament when doing long-term booster planning.
If we take the GTAA Board of Directors list as a proxy list of primary donors, the problem here is simple: Tech’s primary boosters are old and getting older. The youngest of the GTAA Board of Directors graduated in 2009, 2002, and 1997. There are a few concerns with this trend:
- When your average booster was in college in the 1980s they’re naturally going to have 1980s-influenced mindsets and expectations. It would be irresponsible and possibly inaccurate to use the phrase “out of touch”, but there is a definite gap in understanding of what output is possible given the current inputs. The amount of money and resources poured into athletics has exploded over the last 10 years alone (more on that in future parts of this series!). The small-spending, “do less with more” strategy of years past can definitely still lead to some form of success, but that success is going to look very different from what our neighbors and rivals (UGA, Clemson, Miami, Auburn, Florida State, etc.) are able to achieve with their war chests. Tech simply cannot continue to do what it’s doing now and expect to compete on a national scale. It’s important to note that we’re not decrying all of Tech’s boosters for being staid in their ways: there are obviously plenty of people out there who understand the current trends — the problem is that there aren’t enough of them.
- Like with any trend of aging population, replacement is a problem. When older boosters stop contributing or pass away, the factors we’ve discussed above prevent there from being enough younger ones to take their places. That means a drop in donations and an even wider age gap when the next ones do finally come along. A healthy population has representation from a spectrum of perspectives and generations; a 10+ year gap between graduation years doesn’t help anyone.
Even ignoring the financial side of things (though we’ll get there), these factors create real barriers to building a large, cohesive, and engaged student and alumni fanbase. There’s just no sociological or performance-based consistency to build off of. The ethos of college sports is in some ways built on that consistency and not having it can leave us on the outside looking in when it comes to the broader national landscape.
Tech recruiting suffers from academic restrictions, but not in the ways you might think. Tech is usually pretty good about recruiting kids that will qualify — even doing so at slightly higher academic standards compared to its peers — but the problem is that other schools will naturally use the specter of Tech’s required curriculum to negative-recruit. Yes, Tech does make all students take one programming class and one calculus class. However:
- Tech’s athletes generally make it through the programming class, and:
- The calculus class that our one (1) athletic major requires is entirely doable for the type of student athlete Tech recruits, especially with pre-calculus classes offered on campus.
Still, there are internal mental hurdles for potential recruits as well. If your only impression of Tech is that it’s a hard engineering school you probably don’t need someone expressly negatively recruiting - you’re already doing it yourself. Like it or not, Tech has a rigorous reputation and that’s not something prospective student athletes will likely ever be able to ignore.
Now of course, there are obviously plenty of very intelligent and academically capable recruits out there across all sports. But choosing a school is often a question of priorities, not one of capabilities. Heightened academic rigor is just one more factor that an athlete has to consider and decide if it’s worth it or not based on their own personal priorities.
The bigger hurdle for recruits coming to Tech is the relative dearth of majors to point athletes to (intentionally or otherwise). For the most part, athletes at Tech are mainly Business Administration and HTS (History, Technology, and Society) majors. Athletes that want to transfer to Tech or seniors that want to continue their studies often cannot given the limited breadth of masters programs available to them at the Institute. On paper, it may seems reasonable for the Institute keeps its academic offerings slim — this would track with its original mandate as the premier engineering institution in the South. However, in practice, this has been a consistent problem in recruiting and retaining talent.
Of course, much like others in this series, this is not a new problem: it’s one that Bobby Dodd himself noted at several points in his tenures as football coach and athletic director, arguing that “rising academic standards and Tech’s limited curriculum would make it more difficult to field competitive teams than in the glory days of the 1950s and 1960s” (McMath, 1988). Granted, Tech as an institution is far more broad today than it was 50 years ago, but the crux of the issue is still at hand.
Oftentimes when this topic comes up, there's mention of the University System of Georgia limiting Tech’s offerings to suppress its growth in favor of its golden child out east. In lieu of fomenting further conspiracy, consider this: what if Tech itself does not want to water down its program offerings? Why offer a Sports Science program when they could direct those resources to, say, Biomedical Engineering students instead? It all comes down to institutional priorities (as we discussed yesterday). Even if leadership were to target academic expansion in the future, the cost and effort required to start a new department or program is astronomically high. This obviously isn’t a problem unique to Tech, but it is one that was noted in the memoirs of former Institute President G. Wayne Clough, who spilled much ink on the considerations a school must make about how to use its limited resources to drive directed programmatic growth consistent with both the school’s mission and long-term goals. Finding the right instructors, curriculum, financial support, and facilities was as tremendous a challenge when Tech was pursuing a Biomedical Engineering program in the 1990s as it was when the Institute was looking to add Textile Engineering in the 1890s, even if the details themselves were different.
Bottom line: Tech’s desire for rigor is admirable and adding new programs might be fiscally cost-prohibitive, but at a certain point, the philosophical costs of prioritizing rigor over breadth add up: the Institute’s lack of desire to diversify its offerings limits the students it can recruit, both on the field and in the classroom.
None of what we’ve discussed here is meant as a diatribe against the Institute or its decision making. Our goal here is simply to provide context and chronicle the hidden ripple effects that certain things have had across campus and it is plain to see that academic decisions made over the last 50 or so years have had a real and tangible impact on our athletics programs. Certainly, none of us are in any position to say that the decisions made by Tech are obviously wrong, given our complete lack of higher education administrative experience. In fact, we readily acknowledge that many of said decisions have been massively beneficial to the school and its growth. But we’re tired of outside narrative oscillating between “Tech is hard therefore it can’t be good at sports” and “If Stanford can do it, why can’t Tech do it?” — as with most things, there’s complex nuance at play that limits the accuracy of both of those positions.
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