I’m rare among college admissions advisors in that I am also a serious college football fan. Since politicians and pundits off pooh-pooh the idea that a “football school” can also be a serious academic institution.  I decided to take a quick look at the leading “football schools” in the U.S., at least for this season.

This week four universities will be competing in major college football’s version of a playoff to determine which will be crowned National Champion. While the playoff extends the season to an additional game it also helps to settle the question of who is best on the field rather than through writers and coaches polls. All of these schools have Phi Beta Kappa chapters. They have all produced Rhodes Scholars, Fulbrights, and other decorated academicians. They have also sent more young men into the National Football League than most universities because their football programs have had histories of success.

The competing football schools for 2015 are Clemson University, (SC) Michigan State University, the University of Alabama and the University of Oklahoma. Interesting all are located in states that have two flagship universities, and those schools (University of South Carolina, University of Michigan, Auburn University and Oklahoma State University) have also had their moments of football glory since 2000.

Clemson will be playing for the national championship since 1981, the only previous season in which they won it outright, going undefeated and untied. If the Tigers win the national championship it will be only the second in their football history, though they have gone unbeaten in four other seasons.

Michigan State will be competing for a national championship for the first time since 1966. That year the Spartans went undefeated and shared the title with Notre Dame, whom they played to a 10-10 tie during the regular season. That year Alabama, which also went undefeated, was crowned national champion by two other polls. If Michigan State wins the national championship it will be the seventh that they have claimed or earned in their football history.

Alabama has won 20 national championships, either claimed or through polls, since 1925, the last coming in 2012. The Crimson Tide played in last season’s “final four,” losing to Ohio State, the eventual National Champion.

Oklahoma has won 17 national championships, either claimed or through polls, since 1915, the last coming in 2003. The Sooners, like the Crimson Tide, have one of the more storied programs in college football history.

All of these football schools have either well recognized mascots and/or traditions around their football teams; that’s part of the reason that anyone, football fan or not, would call them football schools.

While I have not personally visited any of these schools, it is fair to say, based on having seen them play on television over the years, that their fan bases are loyal no matter how well their seasons are going. Radio and TV commentator Paul Finebaum says of Alabama, for example, that there are four sports seasons in the state: football, football recruiting, spring football and NASCAR.

Would I recommend any of these football schools to the serious football fan who would come from another state? I checked out the latest Common Data Sets and U.S. News information from the schools for help.

Clemson University is not especially easy to get into. In 2014, Clemson accepted 53 percent of the students who applied to join that year’s freshman class. About 60 percent of those in the class who submitted SATs scored over 600 or higher on the Critical Reading section of the test. Nearly 75 percent accomplished the same on the Math section. The average high school GPA was 4.0. Clemson draws 39 percent of the freshmen from other states; overall 30 percent of the student comes from outside South Carolina.

The school is a good buy thanks to very low charges (just over $8,000) for room and board. Clemson does a good job at retaining a class. Ninety-two percent of the freshmen who came in 2013 returned for their sophomore. It also does a good job of graduating a class. Sixty percent of the freshmen who entered in 2008 finished on time.

I would recommend Clemson to anyone who wants an education at a smaller (less than 18,000 undergraduate) state university that is located in a beautiful place in the South. Clemson also has a loyal alumni base. According to U.S. News, the most recent alumni giving rate was 23 percent, high for a state university. But the average student borrower in the Class of 2014 owed, according to the Project on Student Debt, just over $30,000 in student loans. That’s $3,000 more than a student could borrow from the Federal Stafford Student Loan program.

MIchigan State has more than twice the number of undergraduates, over 39,000, as Clemson. It is the only school among the four that also has a championship-caliber men’s basketball team. Like Clemson, Michigan does a very good of retaining its freshmen. Ninety-three percent of the students who entered in 2014 returned for their sophomore year. Just over half (51 percent) finish in four years. That’s good, but Ohio State, which has around 6,000 more undergraduates, and Penn State, which has about the same number of undergrads as Michigan State, do better.

Michigan State is not super-selective. The university took just over two-thirds of the students who applied to come last year. Those who score 1050 or better on both sections of the SAT or 24 or better on the ACT combined with a very good GPA will get in.  Less than a fifth of the freshmen come from outside Michigan, and the out-of-state charges are high, more than $37,000 a year. The room and board is reasonable, on average its less than $10,000. I’m sure off campus housing in East Lansing is cheaper yet.

Michigan State is a good performer considering the size of the student body as well as the academic backgrounds of the freshmen. They are more modest than those of incoming students at the University of Michigan, though the university has one of the oldest and best honors colleges in the country. But it’s not cheap for those who do not come from Michigan and do not have the benefits of one of the larger merit scholarships. But those from Michigan get their education at a reasonable price. Graduates in the Class of 2014 who had to borrow owed just over $26,000, just under the maximum they should borrow if they graduated on time.

A flagship research university with nearly 31,000 undergraduates,the University of Alabama pulled more than 60 percent of its freshman class in 2013 from other states.  It took just over half of its applicants, being more selective than other state schools that have received more accolades for academics. About half of the entire undergraduate student body comes from outside of Alabama. If one presumes that the university would appeal most to Southerners, that might not be incorrect. The flagships in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina are becoming more selective, as is Clemson. Those who fall in the middle to lower half of their pool could receive a nice scholarship to Alabama. Those who have to pay will spend around $12,000 less than they would pay to go to Michigan State as a non-resident, and around $5,000 less than they would pay to go to Clemson. But on average, 2014 graduates who had to borrow owed just over $29,000. That’s over $2,000 more than they should have borrowed.

Eighty-seven percent of the freshmen who arrived in 2013 returned for their sophomore year. though only 39 percent finished on time. The numbers (ACT/GPA) for the average freshman at the University of Alabama are quite similar to those for a freshman at Michigan State. Interestingly, Alabama has one of the highest alumni giving rates of any flagship state university. According to U.S. News around 36 percent of alumni, on a average over the past two years, contributed something to the university. That’s the highest for any public university in the country.

Alabama seems like a fun place, at least during football season. Those who graduate from there are probably happier than graduates of other flagship state schools, especially if they’re football fans. I could not imagine a better state university to watch college football on a Saturday, especially if I got into their honors program for the academics. It’s a good value for the money.  But you have to wonder why the freshmen who enter with numbers similar to peers at Michigan State do not return or graduate at the same rate l.

The last school, the University of Oklahoma, is the least expensive. Residents pay less than $7,700 for tuition and fees, non-residents pay around $20,500. Just over 30 percent of the students come from outside Oklahoma. Oklahoma is not a super-selective school. Just over 80 percent of the students who applied to join the freshman class in 2014 got in. Eighty-four percent of the freshmen return for the sophomore year; that could be better considering their profile is similar to students at either Alabama or Michigan State. The four-year graduation rate is about the same as Alabama’s as well. But Oklahoma also has around 10,000 fewer students than Alabama.

The University of Oklahoma is likely a popular option for students from Texas, given that the University of Texas-Austin has become a more selective school for its own residents. The alumni giving rate is 18 percent, very good for state school. The average student borrower who graduated in 2014 owed just over $23,000, nicely below the maximum that s/he should borrow over four years.

I can imagine that the University of Oklahoma is, like Alabama, a fun place to be during the football season. It’s certainly a good buy, especially if you can earn an academic award. But the same questions come out about retention and graduation rates.

If I took the view that I could receive a fine education from any of these schools, and gain admission to all of them, I would consider Clemson to be the best school, though not always the best value for the money, unless there was an academic award attached. I like what I’ve read about Alabama’s honors program and could probably qualify for a scholarship. So I’d be ready to shout “Roll Tide!” in Bryant-Denny Stadium come fall freshman year. Presuming that a season ticket was available.


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