Students cheer on GaelsChoosing a college is one of those decisions that can change your life forever. But what factors play into this decision? Of course, class size, prospective majors and location are all important. But what about sports? Can a school’s sports reputation really make a difference in admissions and enrollment?

In 1984, a Boston College quarterback named Doug Flutie heaved a “Hail Mary” pass that defeated a Miami football powerhouse. In the next two years, after Flutie became a household name and won the Heisman Trophy, applications to Boston College spiked by 30 percent.

Similarly, after George Mason University’s magical Final Four run in the NCAA Basketball Tournament in 2006, applications jumped 22 percent in the following year. And at Butler University, after its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament championship game in 2010, applications jumped from 6,760 to 9,518.

Although opinions differ on whether successful college sports teams help to lure high school seniors, numbers don’t lie. According to a study by professors Devin Pope of the University of Chicago and his brother, Jaren Pope of BYU, winning an NCAA national championship in basketball or football produces an increase in applications of about 8 percent on average, with more out-of-state students attending than normal. Their studies also show a 3 percent increase when teams make it to the Sweet 16 and a 1 percent increase when teams just make the tournament field.

The academic year after the Gaels made it to the Sweet 16, the incoming freshman class was noticeably larger. According to Saint Mary’s records, there were 695 incoming students in the freshman class in 2010. That was up almost 22 percent from the prior year’s enrollment of 572 students.

“I would like to think we had something to do with that,” says Patrick Lorenzo, assistant director of admissions. But because the application deadline falls before the March tournament, he says, “there was no real increase in applications; more people just decided to attend the College.”  

Gaels basketball team celebrates at Selection SundayNevertheless, it’s clear that the national attention has helped put Saint Mary’s College on the map. “Saint Mary’s is much more of a household name since Coach Bennett put Gaels basketball into the national conversation,” says Assistant Athletic Director for Communications Richard Kilwien.

Senior Darcy Stevens agrees, remembering how basketball was a big part of orientation when she came to visit the school from her home in Montana. “When I visited Saint Mary’s, I went on a tour. Then I went to a basketball game that night.”

Out-of-state students seem most drawn by winning teams, as the Pope brothers’ study showed. “I remember following the Gaels’ run to the Sweet 16,” says sophomore Alex Dulwick of Beaver Creek, Ore. “It wasn’t the deciding factor, but it did spark my interest.”

The importance of sports in student recruitment is open to debate, but the numbers seem to indicate an uptick in enrollment when a school has a high-profile team. As the Gaels roll into the NCAA tournament this March with an outright regular-season championship, a conference tournament championship and a trip to the “Big Dance,” only time will tell if that translates into more applications. But as the saying goes, “Everyone loves a winner.”

By Max Crowell '13 —SMC Sports Journalism Class, Department of Communication

Photos by Gorby Lingad '10 and Andrew Nguyen '15

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