By Tom Still

MADISON – The Southeastern Conference is the best college football league in the country. We get it, thanks to countless reminders from ESPN. We especially get it now that SEC member Arkansas has lured away Wisconsin head football coach Bret Bielema.

For those who understand football isn’t the only reason major universities exist, however, some off-the-field comparisons are in order. In these important categories, Wisconsin and its Big Ten Conference counterparts hold an impressive advantage.

Graduation rates: Colleges and universities are usually judged first by the quality and quantity of their graduates. How many skilled people are they sending into the workforce and society? The four-year graduation rate for the Big Ten’s current 12 members is 53 percent and the six-year graduation rate is 66 percent, based on figures through 2011. Northwestern and Michigan stand at the top; Purdue and Nebraska at the bottom. Those averages only climb if Maryland (66 percent and 82 percent) and Rutgers (55/77), two schools that will join the Big Ten in 2014, are counted.

In the SEC, the four-year average for its 14 member institutions is 44 percent and the six-year average is 69 percent. Vanderbilt and Florida were the top two; Mississippi State and Louisiana State were at the bottom.

Edge: Big Ten Conference.

Academic R&D spending: Nearly 900 colleges and universities in the United States raised and spent about $65 billion on research and development in the latest federal fiscal year, according to the National Science Foundation. Virtually all of that R&D spending took place in the sciences and engineering – disciplines that help drive innovation and economic growth.

The Big Ten is an academic R&D powerhouse. Six of its member universities – Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State and Northwestern – ranked in the nation’s top 30, which accounts for 40 percent of all R&D spending nationally. All Big Ten universities except Nebraska and Indiana fall within the top 50. Maryland and Rutgers, once they join, will also fit comfortably inside the top 50. In the 2011 federal fiscal year, the Big Ten schools reported R&D spending of $8.7 billion to NSF.

The SEC has two schools in the top 30 and one more in the top 50. Its schools reported total R&D spending of about $4.5 billion.

Edge: Big Ten Conference.
Private equity investments: As Thomas Edison famously said, “The value of an idea lies in the using of it.” The intellectual property produced by any university isn’t necessarily important if it only sits on an ivy-covered shelf. That’s why commercialization of ideas, often led by investors who take an interest in startup companies, is vital.

There are many factors beyond academic R&D that influence angel and venture capital investments, of course, but state investment totals in Big Ten and SEC states can be compared. In 2011, venture capitalists invested $2.87 billion in the Big Ten states and $2.27 billion in the SEC states, which included Texas, a state that accounted for $1.47 billion on its own.

Since 1985, according to the National Venture Capital Association, all but three Big Ten states rank among the top 25 states in total dollars invested. Only Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska fall in the bottom half. There were six SEC university states in the bottom tier, and mostly in the bottom third.

The latest report of the Angel Resource Institute shows that through the first half of 2012, the Great Lakes states (a region that includes much, but not all, of the Big Ten) accounted for 15.5 percent of all U.S. angel capital deals and 15.8 percent of angel dollars invested. That compared with 13.6 percent of the angel deals and 6.4 percent of the dollars in the Southeast region.

Edge: Big Ten.

These are only three indicators, of course, and Southeastern Conference schools are no doubt excellent in many ways beyond their football programs. If winning in class and life matters, however, it’s reassuring to know that Wisconsin and its Big Ten friends compete with the nation’s best.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.