Sacked Admissions?

Will Notre Dame pay for its 3-9 season? It depends on whom you ask

South Bend Tribune
February 24, 2008

By Jeff Carroll, Staff Writer

In 2002, Tyrone Willingham took over as head coach of the University of Notre Dame football program. The hire would keep the Irish in the national news almost nonstop for the rest of the year.

There were, of course, the historical and social implications: Willingham was the first black head coach at the university in any sport.

Then the story gained even more heft in the fall. Notre Dame, coming off a trying final season under previous coach Bob Davie, sprinted to an 8-0 start that landed the Irish as high as No. 4 in The Associated Press national rankings. Willingham and his team graced magazine covers nationwide. The venerable Sporting News named the coach its Sportsman of the Year.

Things were good on the field.

They were even better in the university’s admissions office.

In the 2002-03 admissions cycle that coincided with the “Return to Glory” season, Notre Dame received a then-record 12,096 applications. It was an increase of 24 percent over the previous year’s cycle and the second-largest increase, in percentage, in the last 30 years at Notre Dame.

Proof that athletic success translates directly into success for the institution? Not so fast.

“You can’t deny the fact that our name gets around through football,” said current ND junior Colin Reimer, who is not an athlete. “It’s a high-profile team that’s going to be seen by a whole lot of people. I wouldn’t doubt the typical high school ‘jock’ would see this and say, ‘I want to be a part of this.’ ”

“I really have never seen the connection,” counters Notre Dame director of admissions Dan Saracino.

So the question hangs out there, without a definitive answer but worth exploring all the same. Could Notre Dame’s 3-9 season in 2007 negatively affect its applicant pool, in quantity or quality or both, for the university’s incoming freshman class? And would an ensuing rebound on the football field in 2008 mitigate any lasting damage next winter?

Even the experts disagree on the answers.

Origin of the name
On Nov. 23, 1984, Boston College’s football team visited defending national champion Miami at the Orange Bowl. Though the Eagles had one of their strongest teams in many years, with just six seconds to play, they trailed 45-41.

Quarterback Doug Flutie took the snap at Miami’s 48-yard line and scrambled backward. He eluded one charging Hurricane lineman, then heaved the ball more than 60 yards toward the end zone. Out of the clump of bodies near the goal line emerged wide receiver Gerard Phelan. There was no time left. BC had won 47-45.

The name for the “Flutie Effect” or “Flutie Factor” thus emerged, though the finish’s actual effect on Boston College’s admissions that cycle has often been exaggerated. BC sociology professor Michael Malec, who has studied the connection between athletic success and applicant pools, cringes whenever he sees it written or reported that BC’s applications soared as high as 30 percent the year of Flutie’s throw.

In truth, he said, applications increased from 14,398 in 1983-84 to 16,163 in ’84-85. Actual percentage change: about 12.2 percent. Significant, but not astronomical.

He notes that applications also increased after the 1978 football season, one that saw the Eagles finish 0-11.

“Boston College was growing in admissions when Doug Flutie was still in kindergarten,” Malec said. “The sports part of the college experience for many people is nice, but I don’t think it’s the main reason that most people choose their school, certainly not when they’re paying over $40,000 a year. You’re not going to a school at that price so you can spend five or six afternoons at a football stadium.”

Malec, by the way, is no sports-hating academic – he’s been a BC basketball season ticket holder for decades.

“I think there is such an effect,” he said of the so-called “Flutie Factor,” “but I think it’s very small.”

‘It’s true everywhere’

On the other side of the debate is Steven Roy Goodman, educational consultant and author of the book “College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family.”

Goodman works with clients and their families in the college admissions process, recommending that students, for example, apply to a minimum of seven schools in this era of competitive admissions offers and financial aid packages. He believes the “Flutie Factor” is very real, and said he has witnessed it cause rifts in families. Prospective students want to head to a place where a successful athletic program is a part of the college experience, while parents focus on other factors.

“It’s true in Boston, it’s true in Indiana, it’s true in California, it’s true everywhere,” Goodman said.

Goodman advised a client who chose the University of Michigan over several Ivy League offers because of the chance to join a Big Ten marching band. But even students who won’t participate that directly, he said, take sports into consideration.

“I’ve had many fascinating discussions in my office with moms and sons where the mothers are focused on making sure the son has an educational experience that’s focused on individual attention and the son wants the opposite,” Goodman said. “He wants some anonymity and to be part of an anonymous crowd that’s rooting for a big-time sports program.”

Many factors, Goodman says, account for the increase in applicants at schools like Notre Dame, which had 6,458 applicants in 1977 and 14,506 last year, a 125 percent increase over three decades. The United States population has soared in that time. And with college tuition climbing into the stratosphere along with it, students apply to more schools on average, looking for the best bargain.

But discounting athletics as at least a factor would be naive, he said.

“It’s more than subconscious,” Goodman said. “It’s very real.”

Skeptical of a connection
Notre Dame’s 125 percent increase in applicants over the last three decades hasn’t been a consistently steady climb. Like the stock market, it’s been volatile in the short term, but trending upward over the long haul.

Over the course of that time, there have been applicant spikes and dips that, at first glance, don’t seem explainable as standard and inevitable fluctuations.

The spring of 1978 saw an 18.9 percent increase in applications to ND – the previous fall, the Irish had won the national championship in football (that was also the heyday for ND men’s basketball – the Irish spent a significant portion of the season ranked in the nation’s top five, then advanced to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament in March).

After the 1982 football season, ND’s second consecutive finish out of the final Associated Press Top 25 and second straight campaign without a bowl appearance, applications plummeted 17.9 percent.

Applications spiked sharply in the early years of Lou Holtz’s coaching tenure, a period that also saw Notre Dame make a hard push to improve its national academic reputation. U.S. News & World Report magazine ranked ND 31st among national universities in 1991 and in the top 20 just three years later, where it has remained ever since.

The school actually seems to be in an upward applications cycle right now. After each of coach Charlie Weis’ first two seasons, both of which resulted in BCS bowl appearances and considerable national media buzz, application numbers increased by 13 percent or more over the previous cycle.

Don’t, said ND director of admissions Saracino, assume that there’s a direct connection in any of these cases. After all, the idea that correlation implies causation is one of philosophy’s most famous logical fallacies.

“Is it more enjoyable around here when we win?” Saracino said. “Sure. As far as applications go, I don’t think there’s ever been a connection. I think there’s been an assumption that success in admissions and success in fund raising definitely go hand in hand with success on the football field. That doesn’t appear to be true here.”

That being said, Saracino does believe that the strong athletic culture at Notre Dame is a draw for high school students considering their options. About 70 percent of ND students, he said, participated in a varsity sport in high school. About 40 percent of students were the captain of a varsity team at their high school.

“Our students are interested in athletics, but not just as spectators,” Saracino said.

Saracino points to the fact that Notre Dame’s “early decision” applications, with a deadline of Nov. 1 of last year, were up even though the Irish were well mired in a historically bad football season by that point. He has not yet counted this cycle’s overall application numbers, so it is still too early to determine if there is a reverse “Flutie Effect” at work in South Bend.

Saracino said, however, he hasn’t noticed a considerable increase or decrease and expects the final totals to be “within 5 percent” of last year’s figure. Applications to Notre Dame for the 2008-09 academic year were due Dec. 31.”If you survey our students and ask why they applied, they’ll mention the Catholic character, the academic reputation and the spirit of the place,” Saracino said. “And by ‘spirit,’ you are including the athletic tradition. But one year, whether it’s successful or not, isn’t going to dampen the spirit.

“(ND students) do enjoy athletics. I love going to football games. But there’s so much more to Notre Dame than just that.”

Depends on the school?
Among the schools that have allegedly benefited from the Flutie Effect in recent admissions cycles are Missouri (after this past football season), Marquette (the Dwyane Wade-led Final Four basketball team) and Northwestern (the 1995 Rose Bowl season).

One admissions director who has no doubt that success in a sport helped boost his school’s profile is Andrew Flagel of George Mason University. In 2006, George Mason University earned an at-large bid to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament out of the “mid-major” Colonial Athletic Association.

Over the next few weeks, the senior-dominated squad enthralled the basketball-watching nation, defeating traditional powers Michigan State, North Carolina and finally Connecticut to become one of the most unlikely Final Four participants in the history of March Madness.

The next year, admissions director Andrew Flagel said, he received a 24 percent increase in applications, along with a 200 percent increase in tours by high school seniors and a 150 percent increase in preliminary inquiries.

“At most institutions,” Flagel said, “even the national championship doesn’t do for them probably what the Final Four did for us.”

In May 2004, Cornell University business and economics professor Robert H. Frank undertook an extensive study of the Flutie Effect and its sibling, alumni donation rates, as related to athletic success. Frank’s 36-page paper, “Challenging the Myth,” was prepared for the reform-oriented Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

Frank’s starting point was a common hypothesis: Runaway spending in big-time athletic departments is justified because winning on the field helps the school in other, more substantive areas.

He cites several academic studies into the Flutie Effect. One, a 1987 study by Clemson University professors Robert McCormick and Maurice Tinsley, found an “extremely small” increase in the change in entering students’ average SAT scores dependent on football success. But it was not a difference considered “statistically significant.”

Another study tried to relate swings in applicant quantity and quality to schools’ finishes in the final AP poll of the football season.

“Here, too,” Frank wrote, “the effect is small.”

Yet another study found that a 50 percent increase in the number of football victories was correlated to a 1.3 percent rise in applicants, “even smaller than the ones estimated” by other such studies.

Researchers Douglas Toma and Michael Cross found that national football championships often lead to increases in the number of applicants but, importantly, not the quality of an entering freshman class as measured by test scores and high school grades.

Finally, the fact that the Flutie Effect is so well-known among administrators cancels out almost any benefits of purposefully chasing athletic success with money, in Frank’s estimation. Money, he writes, that would be much more productively thrown toward other, more reliable ways of improving academic quality and reputation.

“Any given athletic director,” Frank mused, “knows that his school’s odds of having a winning program will go up if it spends a little more than its rivals on coaches and recruiting. But the same calculus is plainly visible to all other schools. … The result is often an expenditure arms race with no apparent limit.”

Hooked early
Colin Reimer, the Notre Dame junior, was admittedly drawn to his school through the famous football team. But not because of an autumn of well-timed success while he was seriously contemplating his future; he was hooked early in life, during the Holtz years of the early 1990s.

“There were a lot of times when my emotional stability hung on a game as a kid,” Reimer said. “After the 1993 Boston College (loss), I cried for an hour.”

His parents, the eastern Pennsylvania native said, used his passion for Notre Dame football to light a fire. He kept his grades up, participated in extracurricular activities, including three varsity sports, and studied tirelessly for his college entrance exam.

For a brief moment, his absolute loyalty faltered and he considered another academic power with a successful sports program: Duke.

“Then I realized,” he said, “that at least 50 percent of the reason I want to go to this school is to become a ‘Cameron Crazy.’ ”

Ultimately, Reimer applied to Notre Dame under the binding early decision program and was admitted. Now, from the inside looking out, he doesn’t doubt that some fickle high-schoolers might apply on a whim attached to that year’s football success — or lack thereof.

“You might see a drop-off from the regular sports fan,” he predicts about this year’s cycle. “(But) you have a lot of students like me. I wasn’t less motivated from 1997 through 2004 (when the Irish struggled) than I was from kindergarten to 1996 when Lou was there.

“I had this set in my mind, and I imagine there are a decent amount of students like that.”

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