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Relationship Between NCAA Division I Success and Student Enrollment

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 5149 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Purpose: The purpose of this research was to determine if it is beneficial for institutions to invest time, energy, and resources into bolstering their athletic programs popularity and success, with a goal of increasing their student enrollment. The research hypothesis stated that colleges which experience NCAA Division I success are more likely to see a significant increase in student enrollment the following academic year.

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Methods:  A correlational study was designed to examine the relationship between NCAA Division I success and student enrollment. The subjects were 20 colleges which won a championship in NCAA Division I football or men’s basketball, comprised of 10 from each sport. That data was compared to 20 similar colleges that were geographically closest and within the same conference. There was a total of 20 combined football and men’s basketball champions that were compared to 20 non-champions. The control omitted colleges who won a national championship in the previous ten years.

Results: The results showed that there was not a meaningful relationship (r = -.039) between NCAA Division I colleges who won a national championship and those colleges who did not, in relation to student enrollment the following year. The results were not significant (p value ≥ .05). Colleges who did not win showed an average increase of 726 students the following year. Colleges who won the championship averaged an increase of 653 students the following year.

 Conclusion: Based on the results, colleges that won a NCAA Division I national championship are not more likely to see an increase in student enrollment the following academic year than the colleges that did not win a championship.



 Higher education in the United States began in the 1600s, when prestigious colleges such as Harvard University (1663) and The College of William & Mary (1693) were created. It was roughly 200 years later when the first intercollegiate competition took place between Yale and Harvard at Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire in 1852. The universities competed in a regatta, better known as a rowing race.

 Intercollegiate athletics have blossomed over the last couple hundred years and are one of the most popular sports associations for spectators, rivaling the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Football League (NFL). According to Rovell (2018), the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) generates over $1 billion annually as of 2017. The influence of college athletics is broad and powerful and impacts various industries such as sports, media, entertainment, and education (Rovell, 2018).

 The NCAA benefits immensely from colleges across the United States. Colleges can benefit financially from being members of the NCAA as well, depending on the specific programs they participate in, and their success in them. However, the primary purpose of a college is to provide a higher education to their students. Many colleges have a goal of increasing their enrollment, which will allow them to fuel their growth and success. Some of the largest and most popular colleges across the country have become so well-known because of their athletic teams’ success. To see the impact, one only needs to go to the grocery store in one’s community to see a few people wearing athletic gear of their favorite college team. Specifically, in Ohio, one will see a lot of Ohio State Buckeyes apparel. If one visits Florida on vacation though, you will see a lot of Florida Gators, Florida State Seminoles, or Miami Hurricanes apparel.

 Millions of people in this country are sports fanatics, mostly because it entertains them. Part of that reason though, is because they believe sports can positively influence our lives and society. The question is, does NCAA Division I success translate to higher enrollment for the colleges?

Literature Review

  According to Silverthorne (2013), the idea that NCAA success translates to higher enrollment, among other benefits, is known as the “Flutie Effect.”, Doug Flutie was a quarterback for Boston College in 1984, when he threw a “Hail Mary” pass for a touchdown to beat the University of Miami, as time expired. This game happened to be nationally televised, and Boston College experienced a 30 percent application increase in the following two years. Silverthorne (2013) explains that Northwestern experienced similar results after they won the Big Ten Football Championship, with a 21 percent increase in applications. Another example is when Patrick Ewing led Georgetown University to three very successful seasons in the 1980s, with Georgetown’s applications increasing 45 percent over that three-year span (Silverthorne, 2013).

 A counter to the “Flutie Effect” is the “LeFevour Effect.” Fleming (2014) suggests the “LeFevour Effect” only benefits schools such as Boston College, which experience a positive long-term impact from NCAA success, because they are members of larger conferences. When Dan LeFevour led Central Michigan University to multiple conference championship wins and bowl games, he increased the popularity of the university, but only for a very short time period (Fleming, 2014).

 There is no doubt that athletic success increases colleges’ exposure to the general public. Wolfe (2017) explains that the correlation between athletic success and applicants is limited to men’s basketball and football programs.  She also explains that a team playing on national television increases its exposure to students who may not have heard of the school or ever considered it. The University of Florida was able to use their national championships in football and basketball to be more selective when admitting prospective students. Subsequently, their incoming freshmen GPA increased from a 3.9 to a 4.2 (Wolfe, 2017).

 Charco (2017) researched enrollment and applications at various institutions and found that all schools are not impacted the same. He argues that colleges that already win consistently do not see a large increase in enrollment when they win another championship because they have already reaped the rewards from prior success. Winning a championship or increased success is more likely to positively affect schools who have a good reputation already, and then become very successful in athletics. Charco (2017) also argues that private schools see little to no increase in enrollment. For example, when Duke won a basketball national championship in 2015, the following year they had less applicants than the prior year (Charco, 2017).

 Rhodes (2018) of the Chicago Tribune described the phenomenon known as the “Flutie Effect,” but applied it to a local institute, Loyola University. The NCAA men’s Basketball Championship, commonly known as March Madness, seems to parlay into “applicant madness” for some of the smaller schools who experience improbable, but great success in the tournament. Loyola tracks the number of visits to their undergraduate admissions website, and they observed a 50 percent increase after they beat Tennessee and made it to the Sweet 16. A similar run in the tournament was experienced by George Mason University when they made it to the Final Four as an 11th seed. They saw many benefits from their success, including an enrollment increase and merchandise sales, even though they did not win the championship, or even make it to the championship game (Rhodes, 2018).

 Roy, Graeff, and Harmon (2008) reported that although NCAA Division I football success does not relate to more donors and contributions to the school, it does play a role in more applications for admissions. They state that simply having a NCAA Division I football program can increase applicants, and then having a successful one will promote further growth. They point out the same argument other researchers have presented, that when the football team is good, it creates free advertisement which often trumps even a great marketing campaign (Roy, Graeff, Harmon, 2008).

 Fisher (2007) suggests that athletic success also helps institutional rankings. People of all backgrounds can find value in belonging to a college that has successful athletic teams because it promotes many other activities and groups. This “belonging” creates lifelong memories, which can contribute to them being an active alumnus. Fisher also pointed out the “Flutie Effect” and backed it up with studies looking at over 30 years of admission statistics. Fisher (2007) recognized how much of an impact spectator sports has on American culture and how that affects educational institutions (Fisher, 2007).

 Mulholland, Tomic, and Sholander (2014) found that when a school has a successful football season, their peer assessment score increases by one standard deviation. They also found an increase in student SAT scores, ranging in the 75th percentile. These findings are significant because if a school can increase their ranking, then they should also observe a boost in enrollment (Mulholland, Tomic, and Sholander, 2014).

Lavin (2016) performed a study which could predict a 74 percent accuracy as to whether a school showed a significant increase in applications following a successful football season. He found that it would have to be a drastic change from a bad to a great season for the results to be beneficial for the institution. Furthermore, he strongly states that a school’s football team alone would not be enough of an impact to observe a large increase in applicants (Lavin, 2016).

NCAA Division I success can also be accomplished on an individual level, if a student-athlete becomes extremely popular and has a high-profile due to their athletic success. McEvoy (2018) completed a study related to a student finishing in the top five of the Heisman Trophy voting, which is the award given to the best college football player for that season. His results showed that schools without a Heisman candidate showed a 3.33% increase in applications from the prior year, while schools with a Heisman candidate observed a 6.59% increase (McEvoy, 2018).

Most colleges have a goal of increasing their enrollment, and even if schools feel they are already at the maximum occupancy, they would still like to increase the quality of their students.


 The purpose of this research study was to determine the relationship between NCAA Division I success and student enrollment.


 Colleges which experience NCAA Division I success are more likely to see a significant increase in student enrollment the following year.


Research Design

 A correlation research design was used to sample the relationship between NCAA Division I success and student enrollment. A Spearman correlation coefficient was used to measure the strength of the relationship between NCAA Division I success (independent variable) and student enrollment (dependent variable).

           The previous 10 NCAA Division I schools which won a championship in football and men’s basketball will be tracked for enrollment statistics in comparison to the previous year. The schools which won the championship will then have their student enrollment statistics compared to a school in their same conference. One delimitation is that if a school won a championship in the previous ten years, their data will not be compared, and that year’s champion will be skipped.


 The previous 10 NCAA Division I men’s basketball champions and the previous 10 NCAA Division I football champions. Schools which won a championship in previous ten years will be skipped, but a total of ten champions from each sport will be used. The institutes being compared will be the geographically closest institute to the champion but must also be a member of the same conference as the champion.


Data will be collected from each institute’s official student enrollment records from their website. Undergraduate and graduate students will both be counted. A record of the NCAA Division I football, and men’s basketball champions will be collected from the official NCAA website. Compared institutes will be selected based on geographical distance and conference affiliation.

Data Analysis

 Descriptive statistics were obtained in the study. SPSS (version 25) was used for all the analyses and .05 was used as the level of significance. A spearman correlation coefficient was obtained, and it examined the relationship between NCAA Division I success and student enrollment.


Subject Characteristics

 There were 20 institutions which won a NCAA Division I National Championship, labeled as “Champions”. They were compared to 20 similar NCAA Division I institute’s which are in the same conference as the champion and are geographically closest to the champion, labeled as “other” (Table 3).

 The statistics table (Table 3) shows the mean change in student enrollment the year after a college wins a championship vs. a similar school which did not win. The school which did not win, surprisingly averaged a larger increase in enrollment the following year (726 students vs. 657 students).

 The r value was -.039, which signifies that there was not a meaningful relationship between colleges which won a national championship, and those which did not, as shown in Table 4. The p value ≥ .05, which indicates that the results were not significant.


 NCAA Division I athletics has a strong influence on the public’s perception of an institution. However, when we are trying to answer whether the success of athletics has a direct influence on growing enrollment, based on the results from this study, the answer is no. Multiple studies referenced above mention the significant increase in applications, or website visits, to an institute which has experienced NCAA Division I success, but this does not necessarily equate to more students attending their college.

 After looking at the results from the Spearman correlation coefficient, the research hypothesis is rejected. A NCAA Division I championship does increase enrollment the following year, more than other colleges who did not win. These results support a previously mentioned study by Charco (2017), stating that schools that are already relatively successful, see little to no change in student enrollment after a successful season. All the championship winning colleges researched during this study are members of a major conference, and that alone can be considered a success considering how prestigious it is to be a member.


 There are a few limitations to this study that are significant and directly impact the results. The sample size was relatively small in comparison to the total amount of NCAA Division I colleges. There are 347 Division I schools and only 40 were being compared in the study. Another limitation is the fact that no smaller colleges were part of the study. There is evidence of smaller, less successful colleges observing a greater reward from making a championship run. The issue is that they won their own conference championship, but did not win the national championship, so their data was not recorded.

 There are many other unrelated factors that can influence student enrollment for colleges too. Corruption in collegiate athletics, natural disasters, local economies, tuition, scholarships, institutional goals, and recent news stories could also impact student enrollment, to name a few.

Future Research Recommendations

 In the literature review section, there is a couple examples of smaller schools (Loyola University and George Mason) observing a large impact from making it far the NCAA March Madness tournament. Future research looking at the relationship between NCAA success and student enrollment should involve colleges like those. It would also be beneficial to look at colleges of all sizes who turned their athletic programs around and went from being very unsuccessful to very successful. There could potentially be a meaningful relationship if those studies were conducted.


 Higher education and collegiate athletics throughout the United States is an extremely competitive and potentially lucrative business. Some universities view athletics as a marketing and business tool to bolster the prominence of their university. Examples of this happening can be witnessed when studying university such as the University of Alabama, Duke, Ohio State University, and the University of North Carolina. However, it can be argued that this does not work for all colleges and it is also very difficult to accomplish.

 Eckstein and Peterson-Horner (2015) argue that not only is it hard to accomplish, but it is a radical approach to increase undergraduate admissions directly. They suggest that universities should not view their athletic programs as a marketing or branding tool, because it is too expensive and is one of the causes of a “skyrocketing” cost of education (Eckstein, Peterson-Horner, 2015).

 Having a successful athletic program is more than likely a goal of every single NCAA Division I school because it is beneficial in various ways. However, if you already have a successful athletic program, and your goal is to increase student enrollment, it may not come through winning another championship.



NCAA Division I Football (Table 1)



Change in Student Enrollment year after

Similar Institute/Other

Change in Student Enrollment year after




Georgia Tech



Ohio State





Florida State


Georgia Tech















Mississippi St.




















Oklahoma St.


NCAA Division I Basketball (Table 2)



Change in Student Enrollment year after

Similar Institute/Other

Change in Student Enrollment year after









Virginia Tech










Kansas St.








North Carolina










Michigan St.












Arizona St.



Table 3



















Std. Deviation









Std. Error of Skewness






Std. Error of Kurtosis























Table 4


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