The University of
Chicago added two Nobel Prizes to its trophy case this year, further burnishing its reputation
for outstanding scholarship. Eugene Fama and Lars Peter Hansen shared the prize
with Robert Shiller of Yale University. The Nobel is among the world’s most prestigious and well-recognized
honors, so one might expect that this news would attract droves of young scholars
looking to study in the company of such great minds. The data on the effects of
winning the Nobel
prize are still out, but there is at least one factor we know of that increases
the number of undergraduate applications to a school: a winning football team.
Colleges are desperately vying for the limited attention of
high school students. National advertising can be prohibitively expensive, but
winning football games can get a school’s name out there for free. Admissions
officers even have a name for this phenomenon—they call it the “Flutie effect”
after the surge in applications to Boston College following Doug Flutie’s
magical 1984 season.
In two papers, Chicago Booth’s Devin Pope and his brother,
BYU’s Jaren Pope, confirmed that college football success does in fact lead to around
10% more applications in subsequent years. The more recent paper, published
this year in the Journal of Sports Economics, explores why this happens.
When choosing where to apply, a purely rational student
should be focused on questions like a school’s quality, its location, or its
tuition. However, the Pope brothers’ data clearly show that there’s more to
students’ application decisions than hard facts. They argue that because
students’ knowledge about schools is limited, if a school can simply find a way
to show up on a student’s radar, it’s more likely to receive an application—and
one great way to do that is to make headlines by winning football games.
Using the Associated Press Poll of the Top-20 college
football teams from 1991–2001, the analysis shows that when a college ranks in
the Top-20 at year’s end, they can expect somewhere between two and twelve
percent more applications the following year. To put that in perspective, the
Popes estimate that schools would need a budget increase of six to thirty-two
percent to get a similar boost by lowering tuition or increasing financial aid.
Alternatively, a school’s US News and World Report ranking would have to rise
by half (i.e., from #12 to #6).
The most impressive part of the Popes’ analysis, beyond
showing that winning football games leads to an increase in applications, is their
evidence for the relationship between the increase in applications and increase
in media attention. For example, the fact that the increase in applications is
the strongest in the first year after a school’s success, weaker in the second,
and decays very quickly after that is consistent with the attention argument.
They also find that the effect is stronger for out-of-state
applications. Presumably, students are already highly aware of the schools in
their home state, so winning football games can’t do as much to raise awareness
for those schools as for out-of-state schools.
Together the evidence suggests that when students are
deciding where to apply, they are not simply making a rational calculation—schools
that happen to be on their minds get a distinct advantage. That doesn’t
necessarily mean that building a winning sports program is the most efficient
way to attract more students, but getting your school into the public
consciousness can be enormously beneficial. The University of Chicago
admissions office should get prepared—all the camera crews that converged on campus
for the Nobel Prize press conference may be a sign of a busy year ahead.