National Edition

When it comes to enrollment, March is only the beginning of the Madness

By Brittany Rogers

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, April 4 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

Florida holds the NCAA trophy after the second half in a regional final game against Dayton at the NCAA college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 29, 2014, in Memphis, Tenn. Florida won 62-52.

Mark Humphrey, Associated Press

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.”

Influencing choice

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.

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