March Madness Boosts College Applications

Success in the NCAA March Madness tournament is not just about success on the basketball court. Going deep into the tournament can have a beneficial effect on a college’s applications as well.

So, we are down to the Final Four. Having written about March Madness – the NCAA’s annual basketball tournament – for the last two weeks, we will be watching the Final Four round on Saturday, March 31. Or as we’d call it in the UK, the semi-finals.

The Loyola Ramblers from Chicago take on the Michigan Wolverines. In the other game, the Villanova Wildcats do battle with the Kansas Jayhawks. According to the bookmakers in the UK, the final will be between the Wildcats and the Wolverines – but whichever team eventually takes the title, going deep into the tournament is not only good for a college’s basketball team, it’s also good for business – especially if you cause a few shocks along the way.

The FGCU Eagles

Back in 2013, the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles were seeded 15th out of 16 teams in their region. But they started March Madness by defeating Georgetown 78-68: then they knocked out the seventh seed, San Diego State, to advance to the “sweet sixteen” – the last 16 teams in the tournament. Sadly, they went out of the tournament to number-three seed Florida State. But the team’s success on court had not gone unnoticed by potential students across the country.

Google searches for FGCU spiked: the website generated more than 100,000 unique visitors – more than three times the normal amount. And the following year applications to FGCU were up by 27.5% according to a Bloomberg analysis of Department of Education data.

The pattern is repeated

Was that just a one-off? After all, if you’re at school in the snowy winters of New Hampshire, studying at Florida Gulf Coast must seem like an attractive option. But the pattern is consistently repeated: in 2012, Lehigh University defeated number-two seed Duke in the first round and saw a 9.2% jump in applications the following year. “We are still feeling the positive effects of that huge win,” Bruce Bunnick, vice-provost of admissions at Lehigh said in 2017.

Wichita State University’s team – aptly named the Shockers – made it to the Final Four as a number-nine seed in 2013: the following year success on the basketball court was rewarded with a hefty 29% increase in applications.

Bloomberg’s analysis clearly showed that America was rooting for – and wanted to study at – the underdog. Any team that beat another team at least ten places higher than their own rank saw a median 7% increase in applications the following year – “Cinderella stories spur applications” as the headline had it. But from 2010 to 2014, simply taking part in March Madness generated a 4% increase in applications.

The demographics

Clearly, some demographic groups were found to be more responsive to sporting success than others. Unsurprisingly, women who did not list sports among their interest were totally unimpressed by a college’s basketball success. But March Madness undoubtedly increases a college’s name awareness and recognition, with out-of-state students more likely to apply to a college that does well in the tournament – showing that the NCAA tournament increases visibility among students who might not have previously considered the college.

Madness for the UK?

You may not have noticed, but last Saturday saw the Boat Race – the annual battle between Oxford and Cambridge Universities, which takes place on the River Thames between Putney and Mortlake. Once a staple of the British sporting calendar, these days it barely makes the news, so I’ll tell you that Cambridge, the favorites, won by ten seconds. Will that see a surge in applications to Cambridge next year? Emphatically not. Maybe it should be the Cambridge Wildcats versus the Oxford Wolverines? Now you’re talking…