More than 27 million people watched the broadcast of college football’s Bowl Championship Series national championship game on Jan. 10, 2011, when Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton led the Auburn Tigers on a drive that ended with a short field goal as time expired to beat the Oregon Ducks, 22-19, and cap a perfect season.

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Within that crowd of viewers, there were inevitably plenty of high schoolers in the process of deciding which colleges they would apply to.

After the game, Velda Rooker, the interim dean of enrollment services at Auburn, reached out to her counterparts at LSU and Florida, two fellow SEC schools that had won national titles in recent years, so she wasn’t surprised when the school’s number of applicants increased 16 percent in 2011.

Even Oregon, the team that lost to Auburn, received more applications in 2011, a 10 percent increase, thanks to the exposure and enthusiasm that comes with playing at the highest level.

“That season, that game, that experience, took what was already a well-known brand and just sort of put it on steroids,” said Roger Thompson, the vice president for student services and enrollment management at Oregon.

This phenomenon is known as the “Flutie Effect,” named for Doug Flutie, a Boston College quarterback who threw a successful Hail Mary to beat Miami in a nationally televised game in 1984, after which applications to Boston College surged. The theory isn’t foolproof; sometimes schools experience no significant increase in interest after pivotal sports moments. But in other cases, colleges — ranging from major state schools to lesser-known institutions that particularly benefit from the attention — have spikes in interest following athletic success.

Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie caused a spike in applications to his school after completing an iconic Hail Mary pass later in this game against Miami in November 1984. (Joe Skipper/AP)

A college football game can serve as a four-hour national commercial, showcasing a piece of that school’s student experience. In a 2017 survey, Clemson asked admitted students how influential the school’s athletic success in 2016 -- a year in which the Tigers won a football national title -- was in their decision to apply. Thirty percent said it was moderately, very or extremely influential, and another 25 percent said it was slightly influential.

Those who work in schools’ admissions departments seem to agree that athletics might light a spark of interest but that other factors lead to the decision to enroll. Plus, it’s impossible to attribute one reason to a spike when schools constantly add programs, majors and scholarships that may influence the number of applicants.

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ALABAMA

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ALABAMA

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Since Nick Saban brought Alabama into an era of football dominance, the school’s application numbers have steadily risen. But interest in the school was already trending upward. The university did not make anyone available for this story, but a spokesperson said Alabama began a strategic enrollment growth plan 15 years ago and that athletic success “also provided tremendous opportunity to showcase our institution and tell the story about where legends are made to a global audience.”

This fall, Auburn, which upset national champion Alabama and national runner-up Georgia during the 2017 regular season, had a 21 percent increase in applicants, according to Rooker. She said the department changed its marketing, so maybe that contributed, but there was another factor worth consideration: “We did have a better-than-average football season.”

Explore applications for 348 Division I schools between 2001 and 2017

School application numbers are shown on different scales. Schools with missing data did not report that year.

  • Football
  • Men's Basketball
  • Women's Basketball

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Alabama

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Clemson

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Notre Dame

Championship: 1x Five title game appearances: 4x 1x

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Oklahoma

No championships Four title game appearances: 1x 3x

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Smaller and lower-profile universities can also benefit from the national exposure granted them by a successful team. In March, Yvette Mozie-Ross, the vice provost of enrollment management and planning at University of Maryland Baltimore County, drove to Charlotte for UMBC’s first-round NCAA men’s basketball tournament game against No. 1 seed Virginia. She watched her alma mater with her husband, also a UMBC graduate, and her son, who is a student at the school.

She attended the game as a fan, but by the time UMBC completed its historic upset, she began to process the result differently.

“My brain started moving fast forward, and I started thinking about, ‘Wow, this is big. This is huge,’” Mozie-Ross said. “I would say by the end of the game, I kind of kicked into enrollment management mode.”

Because of the timing of both football’s and basketball’s postseason, the effect of national titles and surprise runs doesn’t appear until the following year. By January and March, most high school students have determined where they will apply, so the spike usually occurs the next year, meaning for UMBC, the possible increase would be for those applying to enroll in fall 2019.

UMBC fans celebrate a second-half three-pointer during Kansas State's defeat of UMBC in the second round of the NCAA tournament in March. UMBC’s upset of Virginia in the first round increased exposure for the school. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

But Mozie-Ross said the number of students visiting and touring campus has seen a noticeable increase. Sometimes the UMBC visitors mention that first-round upset while they are on campus, and she said there was a “different energy and buzz” during orientation. Loyola Chicago, which advanced to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed, also saw an increase in visitors and anticipates an increase in applicants, according to Erin Moriarty, the school’s dean of undergraduate admissions.

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After Florida Gulf Coast made a similar run in 2013, advancing to the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed, the school saw a 27 percent increase in the number of applicants, and out-of-state enrollment also surged, according to R. Marc Laviolette, the school’s director of admissions. Sure, the school could have experienced a similar spike had it invested a few million dollars into marketing, but Laviolette said the advertising that comes through sports success is not only free but is more authentic.

Florida Gulf Coast became known as “Dunk City,” which served as a launching point for the university’s newfound popularity. Laviolette calls the spike in applications the “Dunk City impact.”

“We absolutely took advantage of it when we found out how popular it was,” Laviolette said of the moniker. “From somebody who's trying to market and recruit prospective students, sometimes I cringed at the term, didn't want to necessarily use it. But it'd be foolish not to because of the instant recognition.”

After the national championship loss in 2010, Oregon played in the inaugural College Football Playoff in the 2014 season. The school’s admissions department embraced the athletic success, hosting a recruitment event in conjunction with the semifinal game at the Rose Bowl.

“Here was this beautiful wave coming in off the Pacific Ocean, and we want to be out there early with our surfboards and ride that wave for as long as we can,” Thompson said of the school’s two berths in the national championship game. “That was how we looked at it.”

At Oregon, more applications have led to bettering the quality of admitted students, as well as increasing diversity. Thompson has begun looking toward 2021 when the track and field world championships come to Eugene, Ore. That event could have a significant influence on international enrollment, just as college football and basketball have done at various schools around the country.

“There is something about athletics that ignites emotion and ignites passion,” said J. Leon Washington, Dean of Enrollment Management at Villanova, which had a 22 percent increase in applications after winning the 2016 NCAA tournament. “When students see that spirit, it's sort of a happy feeling, and they want to be a part of that.”

Seth Blanchard, Armand Emamdjomeh, Joe Fox, Kevin Schaul and Manas Sharma contributed to this report.

About this story

Data from College Scorecard, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), U.S. Department of Education and the NCAA. Schools missing data with a championship in the same year do not have title shown on the graph. Columbia University and Barnard College have been removed from the data because they compete together but have separate applications. Idaho State University, Utah Valley University and Weber State University were not included because they did not have any application data available. Icons by Ayub Irawan and Icons Producer from the Noun Project

Top photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images.

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