News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

March 10, 2011

B-SIDES: Men’s basketball team gets assist in ISU enrollment score

TERRE HAUTE — Jake Odum may be responsible for the assist, but he won’t get credit for it in the box score.

The NCAA stat crews keep track of points, shots, rebounds, assists, steals, turnovers, blocks and minutes played, but not “impact on enrollment applications.”

Nonetheless, when Terre Haute’s Odum and his Indiana State University teammates play in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament next week, their mere presence in college sports’ pinnacle event — March Madness — will most likely lure more students to enroll at ISU. And if the Sycamores win, the effect on their school’s appeal to potential students and their families will probably intensify.

“The further you go in the tournament, the better,” in terms of increased applications by prospective students, said Devin Pope, who co-authored a 2008 study of the NCAA Tournament’s effect on applications and, thus, enrollment at participating schools.

Pope and his brother — both college professors and fans of their alma mater, Brigham Young University — researched data on applications and incoming students’ SAT scores from the years 1983 to 2002 at 330 colleges. They also looked at those schools’ success in the NCAA basketball tournament and Division I football.

Their conclusion? “If you make it to the NCAA Tournament, you’re going to see a bump in applications,” said Pope, assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Pope and his brother, Jaren, now an assistant professor of economics at BYU, came up with the idea for the study while sitting at their parents’ kitchen table. They knew that anecdotal evidence from various colleges suggested a Big Dance ticket influences applications for admission and enrollment. The Popes also realized other factors often sway the interest of a would-be student, such as the campus’ geographic distance from their home, financial aid availability, tuition costs and the quality of the schools.

“I don’t think our paper takes away from the fact that these other things matter,” Devin Pope said, speaking by telephone Wednesday from his Chicago office.

Still, the numbers indicate that NCAA Tournament success results in increased applications. Simply making the field produces an average jump of 1 percent, the study showed. A trip to the Sweet Sixteen typically brings a 3-percent rise, while a Final Four appearance generates a 4- to 5-percent jump. An NCAA championship boosts applications 7 to 8 percent.

It happened after George Mason University in Washington, D.C., made a stunning run to the Final Four in 2006. By spring of 2007, applications rose 24 percent overall and 48 percent among prospective students outside Virginia. (The impact of an NCAA Tournament berth takes a year to hit, because most schools’ application deadlines arrive before March Madness.) George Mason seized its rare moment, sending out a quarter-million e-mails to potential incoming freshmen when the Patriots reached the Sweet Sixteen, and another 250,000 after they made the Final Four. In every pregame interview, loyal GMU coach Jim Larranga extolled the university’s highly rated programs, such as law and psychology. On CBS, Larranga explained that the university’s namesake was one of the nation’s founding fathers who advocated the abolition of slavery.

The goal was “to really leverage that opportunity,” GMU dean of admissions Andrew Flagel told the Tribune-Star in 2007.

That approach makes sense. There’s nothing wrong with ISU taking a page from George Mason, even if the Sycamores’ tournament run lasts only one or two games. This is ISU’s first chance in a decade “to really leverage” such an opportunity. One year after the Sycamores’ most recent NCAA appearances in 2000 and 2001, enrollments rose, hitting 11,321 in the fall of 2001 and 11,714 in fall of 2002. Indiana State’s only other NCAA trip — the fabled 33-1 run to the finals with Larry Bird and Co. in 1979 — also expanded the total student body to 12,362 in the fall of 1980. ISU’s enrollment hasn’t been that high since.

The school could get there again, though.

ISU already has generated recent momentum without any tangible effect from postseason basketball visibility. Last fall, enrollment increased more than 9 percent overall and 33 percent among new freshmen to 11,494 total students. That number was 10,534 a year earlier. In 2009, current ISU president Daniel Bradley set a beautifully aggressive goal of hitting the 12,000 mark in enrollment, while also increasing graduation rates by 2014. If this year’s NCAA journey further invigorates the influx of applications, ISU might reach that plateau sooner.

Critics will complain the NCAA Tournament, with its multibillion-dollar TV contract with CBS, is the poster child of college sports’ excess. There is some truth in that outlook, and universities and colleges — including ISU — should constantly scrutinize the level of resources committed to its athletic teams. Academic quality gives a college education its meaning and value.

But a successful basketball season also raises spirits on campus, and it builds a connection with the surrounding community and the outside world. Since the Sycamores secured their NCAA berth by winning last weekend’s Missouri Valley Conference Tournament at St. Louis, administrators have heard from ISU alums around the country. Like it or not, the spotlight is on, the window of marketability is open, and the timing couldn’t be better.

ISU and other Indiana public universities face more budget cuts as the state’s tax revenues dwindle. Last fall’s enrollment increase, yielding more tuition-paying students, helps offset the state funding crunch. If seeing “Indiana State” on an NCAA bracket puts ISU on the radar screens of a greater number of college-hunting high schoolers, that’s a good thing. The university has a chance to tell its story, just like Jim Larranga did in George Mason’s “one shining moment.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@

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