Saban-omics: How Nick Saban fueled the University of Alabama’s big-money rise in enrollment and prestige

In the early 2000s, Robert Witt, then-president of the University of Alabama, gave the school’s admissions office clear instructions: Approach recruiting top academic prospects the same way you would top athletic prospects — and look out of state to find them. 

Various sectors of the school embarked on that mission, according to a 2010 case study of the university’s approach that was co-authored by three University of Alabama employees and two other experts in enrollment management, as the practice of shaping a college class is known.

In 2007, athletics gave that strategy an enormous boost when the school hired Nick Saban as its head football coach. 

Saban, who announced his retirement this week, famously went on to lead Alabama to six national championships. In 2013, Witt, who by then was chancellor of the University of Alabama system, called Saban “the best financial investment this university has ever made.” In his last year coaching at the school, Saban earned more than $11 million.  

During Saban’s time at Alabama, enrollment grew from 25,580 to 39,623. His tenure overlapped with Alabama’s aggressive effort to recruit out-of-state students, which began in 2003. The school has been a leader in the use of this tactic — which public colleges across the country have adopted amid state funding cuts and which have helped schools raise their academic profiles and boost tuition revenue. 

Out-of-state students are more financially valuable to state schools than their in-state counterparts because they pay more in tuition. At Alabama, out-of-state undergraduate students pay $32,400 per year, compared with $11,100 for in-state students. In a viral social-media post, Joe Pompliano, who writes a popular newsletter on sports economics, estimated that, over the course of Saban’s tenure at Alabama, those students have brought in some $1 billion in extra revenue. 

‘They have charted a course that a lot of other schools are following. They still lead the pack.’

— Stephen Burd, New America

It’s hard to definitively quantify how big a role Saban played in Alabama’s ability to recruit these students, but there’s no doubt it helped. 

“It was a strategy that was, in my estimation, likely to be successful, but when you add a championship football team on it, that just increased the likelihood of it being that successful,” said Michael Harris, a professor of higher education at Southern Methodist University. Harris began his academic career at Alabama in 2004, a year after the school embarked on this mission. 

“You have to think there was a halo effect on the institution’s academic rankings, on its ability to recruit faculty, its ability to recruit students,” he said. 

The University of Alabama said in a statement that students “are drawn to the preeminent Alabama experience that propels them to success.”

The statement continued: “As the state’s flagship public university, The University of Alabama’s priority is to enroll, educate and graduate students who reside in Alabama, while also recruiting talented students from around the country.”

An effort to become known as something more than a football school

When Witt initially launched the strategy, part of the institution’s aim was to become known for more than football. Staff and leadership had an attitude of “relative complacence,” relying on the reputation of Alabama’s “athletic and social traditions” to boost the school’s profile, according to the case study. 

Witt’s strategy involved sending recruiters out of state and sharing a different perspective on the school with potential students. 

“Recruiters tell the story of an institution that is more than just a football school or a party school; they tell of an institution that is committed to academic success and that is on the way to becoming a tier-one research institution with a bright present and a brighter future,” the authors of the case study wrote.  

Through this strategy, Alabama became a leader in a broader trend that has seen flagship public universities increasingly target strong out-of-state students. These schools typically pursue this effort for some combination of three reasons, said Stephen Burd, a senior writer and editor with the education-policy program at New America, a think tank. 

They need more tuition revenue amid state funding cuts, they want to boost their prestige and become a national brand, and the demographics of their state are such that the pool of in-state high-school students is declining, he said. 

The growth in enrollment of out-of-state students tends to be concentrated in public research universities that are in states where funding is relatively low and that have noteworthy athletic programs, said Ozan Jaquette, an associate professor of higher education at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

“The idea is that you are competing for students who are from affluent families that can afford the nonresident tuition price that maybe didn’t get into their home-state flagship, and they’re basically kind of considering, ‘Do I go to the public regional? Do I go to a private college or university that’s really expensive?’ ” Jaquette said. 

“Now there’s this new option — ‘Hey, I could go to this big public flagship that I’ve been seeing on TV. It looks like the student section is having a lot of fun.’ A lot of students started making that decision,” he added. 

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It’s hard to untangle Saban’s success from other efforts to recruit out-of-state students, but Alabama’s prowess on the gridiron all but certainly convinced some of those students to enroll there. The research on the impact of a national championship on enrollment outcomes is mixed, Harris said, but it’s not hard to imagine that consistent championship wins could help make a school an attractive option. 

“There’s probably not a huge payoff for sporadic or one-time excellence” on the football field or the basketball court, Jaquette said. “The University of Alabama was just consistently No. 1 or top three for so many years, and they used that kind of fame and national recognition to drive a really, really aggressive enrollment-management campaign, heavily recruiting out-of-state students via recruiting interventions and financial-aid packages.” 

Still, it would do a disservice to the broader strategy to say that football success was the only driver in Alabama’s growth, Harris said. “I don’t want to diminish the work of everybody else on campus to distill it down to: Nick Saban was successful at football.” 

Creating demand

Alabama and other public flagship institutions essentially create demand for their product by visiting students across the country and talking themselves up, Jaquette said. At Alabama, admissions representatives made 4,349 off-campus recruiting visits in 2017, according to research co-authored by Jaquette. Only 392 — or less than 10% — of those visits were in Alabama, and those were largely in primarily white and affluent communities, the researchers found. 

The 2,312 visits recruiters made to out-of-state public high schools were also concentrated in white, affluent areas, Jacquette and his co-authors found. In addition, recruiters visited 934 private out-of-state high schools, more than double the total number of in-state schools they visited. 

“They were an extreme, extreme outlier,” Jaquette said. “The University of Alabama took recruiting extremely seriously. They were very purposeful about it. They devoted a lot of resources to it.”  

That’s including using so-called merit aid, or offering students money based on something other than need to convince them to attend. In his 2020 analysis of 339 public colleges, Burd found that the University of Alabama spent the most on merit aid. 

In fall 2022, roughly 58% of the University of Alabama’s students were from out of state. 

“The University of Alabama has been the most aggressive in using enrollment management, using non-need-based aid, financial-aid leveraging, to get out-of-state students to come,” he said. “They have charted a course that a lot of other schools are following. They still lead the pack.”  

Schools generally use non-need-based aid to recruit students in two ways. The first is to give generous scholarships, including full rides, to top-performing students. That can raise the school’s academic profile, and it creates ambassadors of sorts for the school in other regions of the country who might encourage more students to apply. 

The other strategy is to use merit aid to provide a discount off the full tuition price, which lures in relatively affluent students who will still pay more than a student who has significant financial need. 

“It’s a lot cheaper than using your financial aid to try to meet financial need,” Burd said.  

For Alabama, the strategy appears to have worked. Not only did enrollment grow broadly, but the number of out-of-state students increased over the course of the campaign, according to Jaquette’s research. In the fall 2022 semester, roughly 58% of the school’s students were from out of state. 

Still, critics of aggressive enrollment management at public colleges have said it can turn schools intended to serve a state’s population into institutions serving largely wealthy and white students from elsewhere. James Angell, who served as president of the University of Michigan in the late 1800s, said that state colleges provided “an uncommon education for the common man.” 

Jaquette’s research found that between the 2010 and 2016 academic years, the share of first-time freshmen receiving a Pell grant, money the government provides to low-income students to attend college, dropped, and the share of Black students also decreased. 

“Not every student in another state is richer and whiter, [but] those are the students in the other states that the universities are explicitly recruiting,” he said. “When you recruit the students and enroll them, it changes the racial and income composition of the school.”  

The University of Alabama has previously said Jaquette’s research on college visits is narrowly focused on one component of the school’s approach to recruitment.

In its statement to MarketWatch, the university said it is “dedicated to providing an accessible and affordable path to a premier educational experience in our state,” citing tuition freezes for in-state residents in six of the past seven years.

It said out-of-state tuition increased “marginally” to account for inflation the past two years, after three years of remaining flat.

“In addition, UA scholarships have opened the door to thousands of students over the years, both in-state and out-of-state, who would not have been able to attend without scholarship support,” the statement reads.

In a September press release about the school’s record enrollment, the university highlighted a 6.6% increase in in-state first-time undergraduate students.

But the fact that the school’s efforts to grow its enrollment and brand have met with apparent success so far doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to continue doing so in the future. 

“The thing about recruiting is if you have a great recruiting class one year, awesome, you can take a breath for a month, but you have to do it the next year, and the next year, and the next year,” Jaquette said. “That really strong out-of-state enrollment demand, it’s not a given. It’s a lot of pressure on that next coach.”  

To replace Saban at the helm of its marquee athletic program, Alabama was able to attract Kalen DeBoer, who’d just led the University of Washington to a berth in the national-championship game on Jan. 8, falling to the University of Michigan — which, on New Year’s Day, had knocked off Saban’s Crimson Tide.

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