My name is Tony and I study economics. The last time I studied economics was yesterday. I started studying economics in 2002 and I haven’t stopped since. Oh, wait, this is the wrong forum for that speech. My fault.

MikeTBD, way back in May 2010, wrote a pretty devastating and hilarious retort to a certain USNA English Professor. For the record, it was a very witty put down and it was a needed comeuppance for this particular professor. I am not going to rehash any of that here, but what caught my eye was when MikeTBD mentioned the so-called “Flutie Effect”. For those that don’t know, the Flutie Effect refers to the phenomenon of having a successful college sports team increase the exposure and prominence of a university. It is named after Boston College’s QB Doug Flutie whose game winning Hail Mary pass in the 1984 game against the University of Miami allegedly played a large role in the school’s increased applications the following year.

This got me thinking about the quality aspect of the Flutie Effect and not simply the quantity. One of the criticisms offered about the Flutie Effect is that it doesn’t attract smarter students and therefore it’s not all that useful for a college. “Hey, the school just gets more applications from easily impressionable low quality students” goes the argument. There is data in the study to support that thesis. BUT, and this is a big BUT, the study also found that all SAT subgroups (900 and below, 901-1090, an 1100+) increased as well. I will now break down, in detail, the econometrics used to generate these findings. I’m just kidding. I wouldn’t do that to you dear reader. The study also found the following (pages 19-20):

The results indicate that sports success increases application rates for all three SAT subgroups. However, the lower SAT scoring students (less than 900) respond to sports success by about twice as much as the higher SAT scoring students. These results suggest that schools that have athletic success are not receiving extra applications solely from low performing students and greatly strengthen the SAT results derived from the Peterson’s data [emphasis added]. It appears that athletic success does indeed present an opportunity to schools to be either more selective in their admission standards or enroll more students while keeping a fixed level of student quality.

Using two unique and comprehensive datasets in conjunction with an econometric design that controls for the unobservable features of schools, we find that football and basketball success increase the quantity of applications to a school, with estimates ranging from 2-8% for the top 20 football schools and the top 16 basketball schools each year. We also provide evidence that the extra applications are composed of students with both low and high SAT scores. Additional evidence that we present suggests that schools use these extra applications to both increase student quality and increase enrollment size. There is no evidence that schools adjust tuition levels in response to receiving these extra applications.

Why is this important Salty? Hey, thanks for asking. It’s important because the admissions offices are getting more qualified applicants. Even if just 10% of the excess (read: Flutie effect) applicants are from super smart kids, then that is a win for the university. Sure, the admissions staff is going to have to spend time on lesser quality kids too. But those applicants are normally screened out pretty quickly. A kid with a 700 SAT (math+verbal) who applies to Stanford because of Andrew Luck isn’t going to garner much attention from the admissions committee (unless he kills or captures Joseph Kony). So, the admissions office might have a problem on its hands with more applications, but it’s a good problem to have based on the data.

Major sports programs like football and basketball create a positive externality (in economic jargon) for most schools. I’m sure that goes for nearly all schools. I doubt that USNA is an exception.

Here’s the link to the study by the Pope brothers:


  1. Adam Nettina

    Interesting you should post this a few weeks after Bissinger and Gladwell “won” the debate on banning football. I think what you wrote is a cool aside, Tony, but it got me to thinking about something else. Is there any way to measure, in quantatative terms, the effect of a winning revenue sports program on a university populace? Are students more at ease? Do they attend other university functions more? Boost spending on campus in the community? What’s more, does attendence increase is classes? Grades go up? Holy crap, I think I just found something to go back to grad school to study.

    Please TM this thought to me :)

  2. Team Team, Damn Team!

    As a 97 grad with a BS in English (and I do wish to emphasize the BS), why should we depend on statistical research and mathematical fact to help fashion our decision making process when we can use the much more subjective method of “I think that guy is a dumb &^$ because I don’t like how he writes” approach to our theory that the Naval Academy is letting in far too many low performing students because the football team is more important than academics…

    God am I glad I never had that bozo’s class!

  3. saltysam98

    Adam, good questions. The problem with trying to answer them is trying to find proxies for variables that would answer the questions. For example, increased enrollment wouldn’t be difficult to model but “more at ease” would be very difficult because you’d have to make up some type of metric to gauge this and that is always controversial and often wrong. Re:”boost spending as a whole on the campus” would be VERY difficult too because isolating the effects of the athletic department on campus spending is hard as well. Unless you were talking about jerseys, pennants, etc. it would be very difficult. Strangely enough, the Orszags dove into this a little in 2003. At it’s core, economics is a squishy social science that is not nearly as empirical as some would have you believe. It ain’t physics that’s for sure.

    Click to access baseline.pdf

  4. Ohio State, where I attended from 2002-07, is an interesting study in academic profile. When I enrolled in 2002, Ohio State did not have the greatest academic reputation among Ohio high school students, and the Admissions department began a significant effort to increase our academic profile. In 2002, we also won the national championship in football. If I recall correctly, my freshman class was the beginning of a trend that every (or at least most) freshman classes since have been the “best” Ohio State has ever had. And our academic reputation has grown to the point that we now have higher academic standards than schools we were known to be “lower than” in 2002.

    The question, as you posed in this blog, is can this be more attributed to our success in the sports arena (three football national championship appearances and two basketball Final Four appearances since 2002), or did the efforts of our Admissions department bear fruit? Is there any way to separate the two? I would imagine the answers are “Both” and “No”. But regardless of the “answer”, it’s an interesting line of thought.

  5. saltysam98

    Jeff H, that’s the tough part. You’d probably have to commission a survey of students in the cohorts we think were affected (see how this is already getting a tad nutty?). When econometricians build models to explain these phenomena they try to account for everything that is relevant and has an affect on the Y or X in the proposed equation. Sometimes you have problems where you’re not sure which part of the equation is driving which. For example, crime and police force #s are always hotly contested. Which is driving which? Is crime driving the # of police or is the # of police driving the amount of crime? Most likely, Ohio State’s national championship had a significant affect and a larger affect than the admissions committee’s efforts. Why? Because the football team’s presence is just enormous compared to the admissions dept. Most ppl in Ohio know who Jim Tressel was. Did anyone know who the President of OSU was at the time, much less the admissions director? That’s not to say that the admissions dept’s efforts were insignicant, but I doubt it could ever come close to the externality produced by incredibly successful national sports programs.

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