Study Shows College’s Sports Team Impacts Applications

Macleans OnCampus
March 24, 2008


Turns out there’s some basis for the long-held belief among U.S. college admissions officials that the better their schools’ teams do in high-profile sporting events, the more applications they’ll see. Until recently, evidence about the “Flutie Effect” – coined when applications to Boston College jumped about 30 per cent in the two years after quarterback Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary pass beat Miami in 1984 – had been mostly anecdotal.

So two researchers set out to quantify it, concluding after a broad study that winning the NCAA football or men’s basketball title means a bump of about eight per cent, with smaller increases the reward more modest success.

“Certainly college administrators have known about this for a while, but I think this study helps to pin down what the average effects are,” said Jaren Pope, an assistant professor in applied economics at Virginia Tech who conducted the study with his brother Devin, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

The brothers compared information on freshman classes at 330 NCAA Division I schools with how the schools’ teams fared from 1983 through 2002.

Among their conclusions in a paper that is to be published this year in Southern Economic Journal:

    -Schools that make it to the Sweet 16 in the men’s basketball tournament see an average three per cent boost in applications the following year. The champion is likely to see a seven to eight per cent increase, but just making the 65-team field will net schools an average 1 per cent bump.

    -Similarly, applications go up seven to eight per cent at schools that win the national football championship, and schools that finish in the top 20 have a 2.5 per cent gain.

There has been wide debate over the legitimacy of the Flutie Effect, especially when it comes to whether schools should pour money into athletics programs with the hope of reaping the benefits of a winning team.

Pope said that’s certainly not what he is suggesting.

For George Mason University, just outside Washington, the positive effects of its unlikely Final Four appearance two years ago were wide-reaching.

In addition to increases in fundraising, attendance at games and other benefits, freshman applications increased 22 per cent the year after the team made its magical run. The percentage of out-of-state freshmen jumped from 17 per cent to 25 per cent, and admissions inquiries rose 350 per cent, said Robert Baker, director of George Mason’s Center for Sport Management who conducted a study called “The Business of Being Cinderella.”

Baker also found that SAT scores went up by 25 points in the freshman class, and retention rates as freshmen moved into their sophomore year increased more than two percentage points.

“You will certainly have critics who say it would have happened anyway, but I think the general consensus is that it happened faster because of this and that it allowed this university to reach new heights more quickly,” Baker said.

Gonzaga was virtually unknown in most parts of the country until it broke into the national tournament in the mid-’90s. The Zags have been in the tournament every year since 1999, and during that time enrollment has grown from just over 4,500 to nearly 7,000, said Dale Goodwin, a university spokesman.

Inquiries have jumped from about 20,000 per year to 50,000, and the Spokane, Wash., school attracts students from eastern states where it doesn’t recruit.

“There’s no other way they would have heard about Gonzaga,” Goodwin said.

The study found that private schools saw even larger increases than public universities.

Drake made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1971 this year only to lose to Western Kentucky on a last-second three-pointer in overtime Friday. The shot is destined for the highlight reels, meaning the 5,000-student Des Moines, Iowa, school will get even more publicity than its one-and-out counterparts.

Tom Delahunt, Drake’s vice president for admissions and financial aid, said the school already is at capacity, enrolling its largest class in 30 years last year. He still expects increased interest next year.

“We’ll see an increase in high school sophomores and juniors that are now putting Drake on their list where they wouldn’t have before, and they’ll come and visit,” Delahunt said. “We know if we can get them to come visit we have a better chance for them to enroll.”

Pope and others admit that the windfall is short-lived, usually lasting only a few years after a team’s tournament run. Experts say that’s all the time that’s needed.

“If the effect is one to three years, that’s exactly in the zone where students are paying attention to what’s going on,” said Steven Goodman, an educational consultant in Washington, D.C., and author of “College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family.”

“Not that many nine-year-olds are thinking about college admissions, but there are plenty of 15-year-olds who are following the NCAA tournament.”

Experts agree that any bump caused by a tournament appearance can’t sustain a school, but it gives them valuable national exposure that most couldn’t buy. Out of thousands of schools in the country, Goodman said most students apply to seven to 10.

“No one student can know everything about every college, so universities vie for the attention of students, and sports is one of the many ways that schools do that,” he said.

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