The March Madness Application Bump

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Originally featured, before March Madness, in The Atlantic. Author Haley Glatter.

Brackets are about to be busted.

It is not a question of if, so much as one of when and by whom. Maybe Iona College will make a deep run; a plucky Winthrop University team will pick off Butler; or Florida Gulf Coast University will put together another string of upsets. As the NCAA tournament sets off at its maddening pace, lower-profile colleges will surely capture the national spotlight. And the admissions offices of the schools that play their way into Cinderella’s glass slippers could have some extra work come next application season.

According to a recent analysis of federal Department of Education data by Bloomberg, schools that beat performance expectations during March Madness receive a bump not only in public awareness, but also in the number of applications they receive. For example, as Bloomberg points out, after then-15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast’s wild run through Georgetown and San Diego State to advance to the Sweet Sixteen of the 2013 tournament, applications to the Fort Myers, Florida, campus spiked 27.5 percent. A similar trend was observed at Lehigh University after it bounced perennial tournament contender and then-second-seeded Duke from the first round of the 2012 tournament. And it’s not just one shocking upset that results in more applications: If a team makes it further into March than expected—such as Wichita State’s surprising Final Four berth in 2013—it can also experience increased interest. Wichita State, for its part, received almost 30 percent more applications following its success on the court in 2013, Bloomberg reports.

The increased interest in these so-called Cinderella teams, however, may not be all that surprising. Certainly the magnitude of the application spikes is dramatic, but these findings from Bloomberg fall within the expectations of the so-called “Flutie effect,” which draws a connection between on-field athletic success and university prominence. In 1984, Doug Flutie—then the quarterback of the Boston College Eagles—threw a miraculous Hail Mary pass to upset the University of Miami Hurricanes. After the electrifying, last-minute victory, Boston College saw a surge in applications. The game between the Eagles and the Hurricanes took place the Friday after Thanksgiving and was broadcast to a national audience, perhaps allowing Boston College’s victory to pique the interest of students around the country. The NCAA Tournament’s Cinderella stories can benefit from a similar national reach: March Madness games are livestreamed on NCAA.com, and the NCAA inked a $10.8 billion deal with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting. Schools like Georgetown, Boise State, and Texas Christian University have also seen a rise in applications after successful basketball and football campaigns.

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