March Cinderellas are more than just feel-good stories for a school or a signature moment in an institution’s athletic department history. For some, the glass slipper equals a heavier workload for the admissions department.

When asked to assess an institution’s application trends or conduct a recruitment audit here at Stamats, we take into account as many data points as possible. But there are simply some variables that can’t be accounted for, and this time of year is often a reminder of one of them: the effect of a run in the March Madness tournament.

The college basketball postseason is unique from other sports in ways that can contribute to a school gaining a remarkable (albeit fleeting) gain in popularity:

  1. March Madness is long: it officially began the week of March 13 and will not end until the championship game on April 3, which provides a large window for a Cinderella story to gain momentum and coverage.
  2. March Madness is wildly popular (even among non-sports fans): it has been estimated that approximately 40 million Americans fill out a bracket.
  3. March Madness is surprising: without fail, there are shocking upsets, human interest angles, and plenty of storylines that hook the general public.
  4. March Madness is inclusive: it’s rare to see a postseason begin with 68 teams; that’s a lot of room for chance.
  5. March Madness is fun: it’s exciting, engaging, satisfying, and heartbreaking all at the same time…and allows you the opportunity to hold the “bracketologist” title over your coworkers as you dominate the company contest.

While March Madness is one of the most exciting times of the year for Joe Fan, it can also cause excitement (and stress) in an institution’s enrollment cycle through an increase in recruitment efforts and application volume. As this year’s Cinderella stories unfolded (Xavier University advancing to the Elite 8, South Carolina advancing to the Final Four, etc.), we thought it might be fun to take a look back at some of the most famous runs in NCAA history and try to spot some trends.

To do so, we compiled application data for institutions with notable runs in the March Madness tournament throughout the past 15 or so years. Notable examples include Gonzaga University, Davidson College, Butler University, George Mason University, Bradley University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and a few others.

The data show that there is no automatic, uniform increase in applications based on success in the tournament, but there are a few schools that experienced noticeable increases in applications in the years immediately following a successful March Madness run. The chart below shows undergraduate application volume for four universities with memorable success in the March Madness tournament (solid lines show actual application trends; dotted lines represent the expected number of applications based on trends in previous years).

  1. Florida Gulf Coast University (2013): the rise of a little-known school to national awareness through “Dunk City” and a couple of large upsets
  2. George Mason University (2006): most basketball fans will recall George Mason’s incredible run to the Final Four in 2006.
  3. Gonzaga University (2006): a basketball powerhouse today, Gonzaga made an exciting run in ’06 to the Sweet Sixteen that ended in a heartbreaking loss (how much interest was generated by Adam Morrison’s mustache vs. his tears is still open for debate).
  4. Butler University (2011 and 2012): back-to-back national championship appearances put Butler on the map for some people who were previously unfamiliar with the private university in Indianapolis.

Unfortunately, the data are even less consistent when it comes to whether or not March Madness success leads to increases in new student enrollment or enrollment yield. For the most part, it seems that the benefits to the admissions office are solely in application volume. It will be interesting to look at the application data around this same time in the coming years to see if any spikes occur for the Cinderella runs of the 2017 tournament.

March Madness provides a level of excitement that is unparalleled in sports at any level. The next time you see a No. 12 seed inevitably upset a No. 5 seed or an unknown name in sports advance to the Sweet 16, remember that the excitement might spill over to other areas of the institution you hadn’t thought about before.

Aaron Blau, StamatsAaron Blau, Client Executive, Digital Marketing Services

With more than 15 years of experience in marketing, communications, media relations, and successfully guiding digital media and social media endeavors in a university setting, Aaron brings the kind of hands-on expertise and big picture acumen that will position your initiative for success.

Grant DeRoo, StamatsGrant DeRoo, Research Consultant

Grant is our research consultant, joining Stamats after working for several years in enrollment management at Elon University. His experience in applied higher education research, data analytics, predictive enrollment modeling, and leading expansion strategies in new recruitment markets provides him a unique understanding of how to address institutional needs and enrollment issues through applied research.

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