College Admissions and March Madness

Harvard Basketball, Harvard Athletics, Ivy League Title

Harvard has won at least a share of the Ivy League title this year (photo credit: Chensiyuan).

It’s that time of year again, the time of year when you print out your NCAA Tourney bracket, read Dick Vitale’s predictions on ESPN, and then fill in your own projections for the universities you think will advance to the Sweet 16 and beyond. In the Ivy League, for the first time in the school’s long history, Harvard has won at least a share of the Ivy title. Should Princeton fall to Penn in their last regular season game, Harvard will secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Should Princeton beat Penn, Harvard and Princeton will compete in a playoff to determine the league’s representative to the NCAA Tournament.

But beyond the hoopla and excitement of March Madness, how does this tournament impact the universities that manage to qualify for The Big Dance? The fact is that at many universities, including at highly selective schools like Duke, Stanford, and Penn, the school’s run in the NCAA Tournament can have a major impact on the admissions process. Yes, if you’re applying to Duke next year, it may well be in your best interest to root against the Blue Devils this year so that you can have a better chance of admission. Heresy, you might suggest? It doesn’t mean you have to become a Carolina fan. And the fact is, if you’re admitted the following year, you can root on Duke as a Cameron Crazy for each of the next four years and for every year for the rest of your life.

Let’s take a look at the statistics. Historically, universities that qualify for the Sweet 16 increase their applicant pool by an average of 3% the following year. A school that wins the tournament tends to increase next year’s applicant pool by an average of 7-8%, according to a Virginia Tech researcher. Do you happen to remember mid-major George Mason’s Cinderella run to the Final Four back in 2006 (that included upsets of powerhouses Michigan State, UNC, and UConn)? In the following admissions cycle, George Mason’s applicant pool increased by 20%.

In a research paper entitled, “The Impact of College Sports Success on the Quantity and Quality of Student Applications,” author Devin Pope of Wharton and Jaren Pope of Virginia Tech found, “Empirical studies have produced mixed results on the relationship between a school’s sports success and the quantity and quality of students that apply to the school. This study uses two unique datasets to shed additional light on the indirect benefits that sports success provides to NCAA Division I schools.”

The Popes go on to write, “Key findings include: (i) football and basketball success significantly increase the quantity of applications to a school, with estimates ranging from 2-8% for the top 20 football schools and the top 16 basketball schools each year, (ii) private schools see increases in application rates after sports success that are 2-4 times higher than public schools, (iii) the extra applications received are composed of both low and high SAT scoring students thus providing potential for schools to improve their admission outcomes, and (iv) schools appear to exploit these increases in applications by improving both the number and the quality of incoming students.”

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