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How March Madness Affects Your Applicant Pool

The “Flutie Effect” has become part of college admissions lore. The term—a nod to Doug Flutie, a former quarterback for Boston College—refers to application increases that colleges often see following postseason success in football and men’s basketball.

But how much do such victories really matter? And what kinds of students are most swayed by big wins?

According to a new study by researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of Chicago, colleges that win the national championship in football see an 11-percent increase in prospective students sending SAT score reports (used as a proxy for applications in the study). Colleges that win the national championship in men’s basketball see a 9-percent jump (we’re talking Division I sports here). Top-20 finishes in football and strong showings during March Madness bring smaller increases.

The researchers who conducted the study found that men, out-of-state students, and those who played football or basketball in high school are the most responsive to a team’s postseason success, even when that success is moderate (a Sweet 16 appearance). Yet all types of students are responsive to a team that makes it to the Final Four.

“Certain subgroups do not pay as much attention to sports but are still affected by the most attention-grabbing victories,” the researchers write.

Black students are more responsive to big-time wins than are their white, Asian, and Hispanic counterparts, according to the study. A Final Four appearance brings a 13-percent increase in score reports from black students the following year, compared with a 5.7-percent increase over all. Colleges that win the national championship see an 18-percent increase in score reports from black students.

“Certain groups (e.g., blacks, males) may be less well informed about the college-admissions process to begin with,” the researchers write. “Thus, sports success may cause a greater change in their preferences due to lack of outside knowledge.”

As any admissions officer will tell you, it’s hard to disentangle all the possible reasons why applications might rise significantly in a given year (there’s never just one cause). It’s a matter of faith that prime-time exposure of the postseason attracts the attention of students who either don’t know or don’t care much about College X before its basketball team streaks to the the Final Four.

But even if applications rise by, say, 10 percent at College X the following year, it’s impossible to say how many more applications the institution would have received if its team had lost or never made the tournament in the first place. After all, in this era of coast-to-coast applications surges, many institutions continue to see substantial increases each and every year for reasons that have nothing to do with sports.

Nonetheless, the study suggests that there’s plenty to the Flutie Effect (or the “Jimmer Bump,” as it’s been known at Brigham Young since Jimmer Fredette led the basketball team to the Sweet 16 in 2011). The payoffs, though, are fleeting. The researchers found that the impact of sports success declines after two or three years.

The study, “Understanding College Application Decisions: Why College Sports Success Matters,” will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Sports Economics.

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