March Madness: How Does It Impact Your College Choice?

A week ago today, few people outside of greater Fort Myers knew anything about Florida Gulf Coast University. What a difference a week makes. #FGCU has been consistently trending on Twitter for days, now, and the admissions website crashed shortly after the Eagles dispatched Georgetown in Friday’s match-up  FGCU is on the map now, joining Gonzaga, Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason, and several other schools that built a national reputation on the strength of an NCAA Tournament run.

How does March Madness impact a university? How much should you let the results of recent basketball games enter into your college search? Consider a few factors:

1) NCAA Tournament runs spur a spike in admissions.

Studies show that schools see an increased number of applications when their teams achieve NCAA Tournament success. And while the impact may look modest at first – on average a 3% increase after a Sweet Sixteen appearance and 5% after the Final Four – it’s also true that most of those schools already have giant brand names. Duke, for example, won’t see a massive spike in any one year, as those who would consider Duke already know it from its years of basketball success and academic prestige. The same goes for UCLA, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas… But when a school like Florida Gulf Coast or Butler makes a run, instantly it’s a national brand. Those in the state who were considering other local schools – say Miami, FSU, Central Florida, Rollins, etc. – now have a reason to take a second look. “Wait, that’s not that far from home, and what a beautiful campus…”

The smaller schools have quite a few applications to gain from NCAA Tournament success. And while the elite candidates are unlikely to be swayed by a Sweet Sixteen run – no one who’s been accepted to Penn is trying to withdraw their deposit to now apply to LaSalle – the larger applicant pool is likely to bring up the quality of the student body and raise the prestige of the degree at least somewhat. More applicants leads to better students leads to a more prestigious degree. And simply that spike in awareness can kickstart the whole process.

2) The NCAA Tournament makes the degree travel farther.

While the impact of the above may well prove to be marginal at most schools, the fact remains that a degree from a school with “brand” will out-travel a degree from a school without. Consider schools like Tufts and Georgetown. Both are ranked in US News & World Report’s Top 25 (Georgetown is 21, Tufts is 28), and both are extremely reputable along the East Coast. Local recruiters clamor for the opportunity to interview graduating seniors, to offer internships to juniors, etc. But try taking that degree to California or Texas – nearly everyone knows that Georgetown is a great school in Washington DC. We’ve heard Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg tell us that repeatedly. But Tufts? Outside of New England it’s much less likely that someone would know what an excellent school Tufts is. Its brand simply doesn’t jump off the resume the way that the brands of similarly-ranked, similarly-sized schools like Georgetown’s and Notre Dame’s brands do.

Think of this, too: the folks who will interview you for jobs are just as hopeful as you are that your conversation will go well. No one wants to endure an uncomfortable 45-minute conversation, so most interviewers prep for your talk by scanning your resume for some sort of common ground, something to at least keep the discussion enjoyable. If you’re interviewing on campus, you’ll have the same school as everyone there so it’s not likely a determining factor, but if you’re leveraging your network and creating your own opportunities, particularly far from where you went to school, a school that triggers recognition can go a long way toward creating that immediate common ground. “Hey, were you in school when you guys made that Sweet Sixteen run?” is a great conversation starter. Even just an interviewer’s awareness of the geography of your school – “So Gonzaga…how were those winters up there in eastern Washington?” – can create common ground for a conversation. A school’s athletic brand name raises the probability of your job interviews starting with common ground, a decent reason to give that NCAA Cinderella school that extra look.

3) Tournament runs create alumni loyalty and increase donations.

A disproportionate amount of university fundraising takes place on autumn Saturdays. Why? Fundraising tailgate parties at football games get potential donors feeling good about their school and create a great way to get them back on campus. There’s something about athletic success that fires up the pride in the ol’ alma mater, that inspires alums to put on the school sweatshirt while walking around town, to call up old roommates to talk about the game and the potential for next season. Alumni contributions, like application volume, tend to spike when the team is doing well. Those schools that are playing this upcoming weekend? They’re likely to have a little more money in the coffers the next couple years to attract better faculty, renovate dormitories and laboratories, increase recruitment efforts, etc. When the alumni get to puff out their chests with pride, they’re that much more likely to reach into their wallets, too – and near-future students tend to benefit as schools put that money to use.

Will this year’s tournament run turn FGCU or LaSalle into Harvard? Almost certainly not, and Harvard’s first-round win has little to do with that. But will those schools see an uptick in factors that can benefit their students over the next few years? Almost certainly.

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