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The Flutie Factor

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It is commonly believed that Doug Flutie’s November 23, 1984 touchdown pass to Gerald Phelan against Miami capping an thrilling 47-45 victory as time expired was responsible for boosting applications to Boston College in subsequent years. I even stupidly told someone yesterday that my memory was that applications had doubled or tripled in the next year.

Turns out they only went up 16% in 1984 and 12% the next year. This article [2] from a Boston College magazine does a nice job chronicling the facts and how I wasn’t the first to misremember them or misrepresent them. It also questions the existence of any bump at all:

So was the Flutie factor real? The answer is that Doug Flutie increased
              applications to Boston College, but not nearly as much as the public and the media believe or as academic planners at some institutions seem to hope in justifying the millions of dollars they invest in football.

Applications to BC did surge 16 percent in 1984 (from 12,414 to 14,398), and then another 12 percent (to 16,163) in 1985. But these jumps were not anomalous for BC, which in the previous decade had embarked on a program to build national enrollment using market research, a network of alumni volunteers, strategically allocated financial aid, and improvements to residence halls and academic
           facilities, says John Maguire ’61, Ph.D.’66.
The chairman of the board of Maguire Associates, a well-known enrollment management consulting firm, Maguire headed admissions at BC from 1971 to 1983. "Doug Flutie cemented things, but the J. Donald Monan factor and the Frank Campanella factor are the real story," he said, referring to BC’s former president and executive vice president.
Michael Malec, a BC sports sociologist who has studied the relationship
           between athletic success and enrollment, notes that in 1972 the College of A&S opened its doors to women, and in 1974 the University acquired three residence halls at Newton College and built three more residence halls (the Mods, Edmond’s, and Rubenstein), adding Walsh Hall in 1980, effectively doubling the pool of applicants and the housing capacity. "Doug Flutie made some terrific contributions to BC," said Malec, "but his personal impact on enrollment during
   this period has been exaggerated."

Applications to BC had in fact increased 15 percent in 1973 (the year after Fr. Monan took office), 13 percent in 1975, and 14 percent in 1976—years when football was successful but not remarkably so. Between 1970 and 1983, in fact, applications to BC increased in 12 of 13 years, no matter the fortunes of the football team, and they nearly doubled (6,605 to 12,411) between 1970 and 1978…

In a 1994 article in the Economics of Education Review, BC economist Robert Murphy reported on a study of 55 universities with I-A football programs (BC was not in the study group) that found a positive and statistically significant correlation between a winning football season and increases in applications. But the predicted application increase based on the research was a modest 1.3 percent tied to a three-win improvement over the previous season.

It’s always good to watch out for post hoc ergo propter hoc [3]. The true BC story casts doubt on the presumption that George Mason is going to see a big increase in applications in the aftermath of the success of the basketball team. But a lot of people had never even heard of George Mason before the past two weeks. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds. Go, Patriots!