When it comes to recruiting students, colleges and universities nationwide would do well to have a Billy Donovan on board.
The University of Florida men’s basketball coach led the Gators to back-to-back men’s basketball championships in 2006 and 2007, and he’s chasing another title this weekend. But, win or lose in Saturday’s Final Four matchup against UConn, new research shows the gettin’ will still be good for the university’s admissions.
A study published in February’s Journal of Sports Economics suggests that just making the NCAA tournament boosts the number of undergraduate applications a school receives the following fall. Using data on where students sent their SAT scores as a proxy for where they applied, the researchers found that a college gets a bigger bump in SAT scores for each time it advances in the NCAA bracket. A college basketball championship, the researchers say, can lead to a school receiving about 10 percent more SAT scores from high school students — and not just from college-sports-attuned males.
“By the Sweet 16, females seem to be paying attention,” said study co-author Jaren Pope. “And, at the championship level, it seems to be equal” — both genders are equally impressionable. The implication: High school students may not know which school offers the best academic fit or even care how an expensive education impacts their future job prospects, but males and females pay attention to which schools won the last NCAA basketball and football championships and value the upbeat atmosphere a winning team brings.
Last year, the championship spoils went to the University of Louisville Cardinals, whose men’s basketball team won the tournament and women's basketball team made it to the finals, the football team finished the season with a Sugar Bowl victory and the baseball team appeared in the College World Series. The Louisville admissions office saw a significant spike in the ensuing application season.
“We recruited our largest freshmen class in school history,” said Liz Fitzgerald, assistant director of admissions at Louisville. “We definitely attribute part of that to the exposure we got in athletics.”
The researchers, a pair of economist siblings — Jaren Pope at BYU and his brother Devin Pope of the University of Chicago — studied the effects of basketball and football, the behemoths of college athletics. Schools that make the Final Four in the NCAA basketball tournament or finish in football’s Associated Press top 10 experienced a 6 percent to 8 percent bump in SAT scores received. Reign as football champion, they found, and SAT scores submitted to the institution jump 11 percent. The effect even lingers a couple of years out, although at a decreasing rate.
But what caliber of student is so easily swayed by college sports success? The Popes tackled that question in an earlier paper. The students bedazzled by championships, they found, come from both ends of the SAT-performance spectrum.
“About a third are the types of student who could actually improve the average SAT score for the university,” Jaren Pope said. “(They’re) the high-quality students, if you will, from the university’s perspective.”
The University of Florida can attest to that. A decade ago — before the college sports juggernaut had won basketball and football championships in the same year — Florida saw fewer than 20,000 applications a year. Now UF receives a standard 30,000, “and our academic profile has just been going steadily up,” spokesman Steve Orlando said. More than 84 percent of incoming freshmen have an average 4.0 GPA, and the freshman class' average SAT score was 1,960. College athletics may not be the sole source of that trend, he said, but a stellar sports year clearly helps lift the academic tide of an incoming class.
How sports can influence a top-tier student’s decision on where to go to college was one of the most surprising findings of the study for Devin Pope. Classical economics, he said, would assume that students select a college based on wealth-maximizing rationale: What school will yield the best degree to wield in the workforce.
“I think most people would agree that choosing where to go to college should be based in large part on academic fit,” Devin Pope said. “But, if you believe that, our findings are a bit troubling. Students are being swayed dramatically year to year by things economists would say shouldn’t matter.”
He likens his results to a recent study by Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby, who found that top-tier students from low-income families aren’t applying to schools commensurate with their skills, despite the availability of full-tuition financial packages.
“People aren’t applying to the places we think they should be,” Devin Pope said, suspecting a gap in the information high school students are getting about colleges and that a school’s athletic prowess may be filling the void.
“If students aren’t receiving really good information, college athletics is one of the ways they learn about universities that they could potentially attend,” Jaren Pope said. Take the current tournament, he said: Name the mascot of North Dakota State. “Bison,” he boasts. “And I’ll bet you’d never heard of them before.”
The road ended in the round of 32 for the Bison (perhaps the study’s projected 2.4 percent bump in applicants next year will be a consolation prize). But another lesser-known school, the University of Dayton, basked in the spotlight all the way to the Elite Eight.
“I don’t have $10 million to buy a 30-second ad to run on national television,” said Sundar Kumarasamy, Dayton’s vice president of enrollment management and marketing. But Dayton got those 30 seconds free in an NBC Nightly News segment that aired to an estimated audience of 8.1 million.
“It’s the most organic effect we can create,” said Kumarasamy, and one, he hopes, that won’t just put Dayton on the short list of schools a future applicant will consider, but “might result in somebody (from Dayton) getting an interview, somebody getting an internship, somebody making a donation, or even just goodwill toward the city of Dayton.”
The response Dayton’s admissions office receives remains to be seen, but the researchers said the effect of a banner year in sports may be most noticeable at such Cinderella breakout schools.
“The little school that could,” Davidson University admissions director David Kraus said, referring to his university’s 2008 trip to the Elite Eight. Post–Stephen Curry, the team’s star guard, applications rose at Davidson in the middle of an economic downturn, no less, when Davidson’s peer schools were seeing a decline in applicants.
Another little-school-that-could, Florida Gulf Coast University, is seeing nearly 40 percent more freshmen applications this year on the heels of last year’s trip to the Sweet 16.
“It’s not like FSU or UF, where it’s expected that those teams will make big runs,” said FGCU admissions director Marc LaViolette, who has discussed the application boon with his counterpart at sister school — and 2014 football champion — Florida State University. “The impact on admissions is still there for them but not nearly as dramatic as it is on us.”
Applications from out-of-state students increased most noticeably — 47 percent — at FGCU. “That was probably the most telling feature,” he said. According to the Popes’ study, sports success has a greater influence on out-of-state students than in-state counterparts. Being a school that’s only 17 years old, “it’s always of interest to find out how people find us,” LaViolette said.
The Popes found that the effects of a successful sports program are especially salient for certain demographics: namely males, particularly black males, and, moreover, black males who played high school sports. Asians were the demographic least influenced by college sports, according to the study.
If college choice is not just a future-wealth-maximizing decision for high schoolers, perhaps it’s a future-fun-maximizing decision the Popes’ research found.
“Undergraduates are not only looking for a school that provides a good education, but a school that’s also going to be a lot of fun while they’re there,” Jaren Pope said. And a reputable sports program is a tool in a university’s arsenal to draw them in. “It’s certainly one lever that a university has under its control,” he said.
Orlando at the University of Florida acknowledges pulling that lever. “We try to take advantage of athletic success to tell the other story,” he said. The untold story, Orlando explained, is a school where annual tuition is more than $2,000 less than the national average and a school with a $15 million commission to lure the best faculty.
But to get future students to find that story, he concedes, may be up to Billy Donovan this weekend.