Capital Ideas Blog


By Dave Nussbaum

From: Blog

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.


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