September Madness: How the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Predicts College Enrollment Trends

Colleges spend millions of dollars each year to market themselves and recruit students, with an average four-year private institution spending around $2,500 for each first-year student enrolled. Schools also spend millions more on their athletics to boost alumni giving and enhance the general appeal to campus culture. What kind of return, in terms of college enrollment, do athletics bring to campus?

With the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament about to tip-off, I decided to look at the past fifteen years of tournament participants to see what, if any, impact getting into the tournament had on new student applications and enrollment.

Better yet, how did tournament seeding and success influence student enrollment behavior?

This analysis is based on historical enrollment and application data reported to the National Center for Education Statistics and provided in the IPEDs database, along with an independent analysis of each team’s seed and each tournament’s outcome. All reported rankings are based on the most current (2015) College Raptor Overall Rankings.

Losing the National Championship may be better (for enrollment) than winning

Just about everyone, including Vegas, has Kentucky as the overwhelming favorite to win this year’s tournament. So, what growth can Kentucky this year’s national champion expect to see for their new student enrollment this September and in 2016?

Surprisingly, very little.

  • National champions have seen an average of 2.9% growth in new student enrollment
  • NCAA Division I average is 2.8%
  • Oddly enough, it may be better to make it to the national championship game and lose. The runner-up in the tournament has seen an average of 4.1% new student growth
  • What about Cinderellas, double-digit seeded teams advancing to the regional semi-finals (Sweet 16) or beyond? Their new student enrollment actually falls below the D1 average, coming in at 2.2% growth
  • Just making the tournament? That helps a bit. The average tournament team sees one-year growth at 3.0%, which is actually better than national champion’s growth rate

NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament College Enrollment Trends

But, since most application deadlines are before the field is set or a champion is crowned, the best measure of impact might be to look at the bump in enrollment for the second fall after the tourney.

So what about new student enrollment in the subsequent year?

  • National champions two-year enrollment growth is a paltry 1.5%
  • D1 average is 5.8%
  • Tournament average is a 6.0% increase
  • Cinderellas do see a bump, jumping up 6.3%
  • The tournament runner-up dominates with a 7.0% new student enrollment growth.

It’s not the same thing as a national title, but there are enrollment managers and professors who would much rather see more students than a banner in the gymnasium.

Dance today, process more apps next year

As noted above, application deadlines often precedes the announcement of tournament field or the cutting down of the nets. However, teams making the tournament generally have a strong season and could generate increased applications as a result their regular season march to the tournament.

  • For the first Fall after the tournament, the average D1 institution brings in 5.1% more applications than the previous year
  • The average for teams in the tournament, however, clocks in slightly below that number at 4.6%
  • National champions, on the other hand, see more than twice the applications as their D1 brethren, 10.4%
  • Eventual runners-up get 6.5% more applications
  • Cinderellas come in way below average at 2.4%

This doesn’t seem that surprising when you consider the timing. Since National Champions and runners-up are almost always highly seeded, they are most likely to have a great regular season, which drives apps throughout the admissions cycle. On the other hand, Cinderella teams aren’t likely to have grabbed as much attention earlier in the season, so they aren’t as likely to see a big boost in apps in the next immediate enrollment year.

But, does that additional spotlight in March pay dividends down the road?

You bet.


  • D1 average is 10.8% application growth over two years
  • Teams in the tournament clock in slightly above that mark at 11.6%
  • National champions continue their success with 20.7% more applications
  • Runners-up hit 14.0% growth in apps
  • Cinderellas see a dramatic bump at 15.2% growth

Putting the applications and enrollment numbers together, though, it’s a mixed bag.

Winning the tournament seems to result in more applications than one would expect, but actual enrollment growth comes in lower than D1 averages.

A runner-up sees modest application growth, but greatly improved numbers when counting heads in September. Cinderellas appear to get a bump in exposure which grows application numbers and results in relatively modest enrollment success in year two.

In the end it appears that the most favorable position from an enrollment standpoint is still to make it to the NCAA championship and then lose. Second best is to make your mark as a Cinderella team.

But, those aren’t the only interesting findings to come from this analysis.

“Smarter” — better academically ranked — colleges are more likely to win

NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament College Enrollment Trends

Does a school’s College Raptor Overall Ranking (based on academic and institutional health metrics) impact its chances of success? Well, in the national final there is a trend.

Over the past 15 years, the school with the better Overall Ranking has won 12 times — or, 80% of the time.

Year Median Overall Rank of Tournament Champion Champion’s Overall Rank* Runner-up Runner-up’s Overall Rank*
2000 344 MichiganState 190 Florida 101
2001 289 Duke 16 Arizona 469
2002 250 Maryland 80 Indiana 195
2003 304 Syracuse 160 Kansas 453
2004 331 UConn 85 GeorgiaTech 148
2005 431 NorthCarolina 47 Illinois 91
2006 306 Florida 101 UCLA 50
2007 195 Florida 101 OhioState 139
2008 279 Kansas 453 Memphis 973
2009 262 NorthCarolina 47 MichiganState 190
2010 250 Duke 16 Butler 247
2011 247 UConn 85 Butler 247
2012 329 Kentucky 448 Kansas 453
2013 323 Louisville 641 Michigan 39
2014 284 UConn 85 Kentucky 448

Higher seeds get higher test scores

Does a school’s seeding reflect its Overall Rank or the average ACT score of its students?

It certainly seems that schools with better seeds tend to have better academic profiles.

Tournament Seed Median Overall Rank (2015 Rankings) Median ACT (2015 Data)
1 141 27
2 139 27
3 177 26.25
4 151 26.5
5 186 25.5
6 193 25.5
7 196 25
8 311 25.5
9 340 25
10 232 25
11 326 24.5
12 466 24
13 538 23.25
14 538 23
15 596 23
16 997 21.25

Seeds 2 and 10 are nice places to be

What impact does seeding play on enrollment numbers? No immediate trends pop out in new student enrollment or application numbers.

However, it does look good to be a 2 or 10 seed. Get excited, enrollment officers at, say, Gonzaga and Georgia.

Tournament Seed Year 1 New Student Growth Year 2 New Student Growth Year 1 Application Growth Year 2 Application Growth
D1 Average 2.8% 5.8% 5.1% 10.8%
1 3.1% 2.0% 5.9% 11.5%
2 4.2% 8.3% 5.6% 12.4%
3 2.8% 7.3% 4.5% 14.6%
4 6.9% 7.5% 3.5% 10.3%
5 1.2% 5.5% 5.0% 12.0%
6 0.3% 1.5% 7.3% 13.3%
7 4.2% 9.0% 5.3% 10.2%
8 0.2% 1.8% 7.5% 14.5%
9 1.4% 5.4% 5.2% 9.7%
10 3.2% 7.1% 6.3% 12.8%
11 1.1% 9.7% 4.6% 7.5%
12 6.6% 8.6% 3.1% 9.8%
13 -0.4% 2.0% 5.0% 13.6%
14 0.7% 3.2% 1.1% 5.5%
15 5.3% 9.0% 2.1% 8.7%
16 6.5% 7.2% 2.1% 13.3%

My predictions for this year

It’s no fun to look at previous tournament data without making predictions about this year’s tournament.

While I’m no Nate Silver, I feel confident saying that this Fall’s new student enrollment at schools with a team in the tournament should outpace the institutions that aren’t dancing today. Applications and new student enrollment numbers for Fall 2016 should grow as well.

Prepare yourselves to handle the extra interest in your institution, especially if your team makes it to the championship, but loses (to, maybe, Kentucky?) or if the glass slipper fits for a double-digit seed over the next few weeks (come on, Valpo!).