Grades, Scores, and the Winning Team: March Madness and Other College Admissions Factors

It’s been a wild ride in the world of colleges this past year. Rich and powerful players have been laid low. Celebrated institutions have been in the spotlight. Those denied the chance they sought to move to the next level have wondered whether the entire system is rigged. We are talking, of course, about the annual ritual of high hopes and dashed dreams known as March Madness still seared into the memories of many fans.

What do Zion Williamson’s records for grabbing rebounds and The U.S. News & World Report college rankings have in common? Why are we discussing college basketball and college admissions in the same breath?

Think about elite competition and the media spotlight focused on that frenzied chase to be #1. The success of high-profile sports teams can place a college at the forefront of the national psyche, which can then dramatically increase student interest. In turn, that can generate a greater number of applicants the following year, increasing the competition for seats in the next freshman class. If your favorite team does win the NCAA championship, you can pretty much count on it being a least a bit more difficult than before to be admitted.

Winning teams inspire and grip the attention of potential college students, and schools that used “to be easy” can seemingly become “hot” overnight. An increase in applications leads to lower admittance yields, which contributes to a jump in the U.S. News rankings, and thus selectivity is perceived as superiority. (An institution’s 15 minutes of fame may be just what the college needed to boost enrollment.) As some colleges reveal increasingly lower admit rates each year, one might be reminded of the insight attributed to the great sage Yogi Berra, who said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

What’s a sports-loving student to do, especially one who dreams of attending the college of her dream team? It’s natural to want to root for your favorite sports team – and nearly inconceivable to even think of rooting against them – but recognize that in cheering them onto victory on the court, you are (in a sense) rooting against yourself when it comes to getting through the admission door. Therein lies the dilemma, although there is another way to look at this: if your heart gets broken when your dream team doesn’t hit the buzzer beater, you can console yourself by knowing that the admission odds got a bit longer – somewhere else.

So go ahead and cheer your team to victory, since the players have worked hard, year after year, to reach their goals, and they’ve earned this chance to do their best. Come to think of it, the same applies to you as a student. You’ve worked hard to develop yourself as a learner and a person. Soon enough, you too will be a college freshman, whether as a scholar-athlete seeking a national title or as an enthusiastic spectator.

March Madness can shake up college enrollment numbers with a simple tie-breaking free throw, but this is just one of the many ways that admissions stats get scrambled. Colleges and universities have enrollment goals and strategies that may shift from year to year, thus lending an element of unpredictability to predicting admission outcomes. Beyond the court or the end zone, there are plenty of other factors to consider: 

Yield: Colleges look to increase the percentage of students that enroll after acceptance. Predictable yield rates allow schools to plan class size, programs, and budgets. Early application rounds and demonstrated interest help colleges predict (and increase) yield. 

EDI II: Early Decision I has been around for many years, but ED II has added a new policy and strategy to the application process. A second round of early decision applications gives colleges another pool of committed students, thus increasing the yield rate. 

Waitlists: Colleges are expanding their waitlists in order to manage their yield rates. 

Rankings: Lowering the selectivity rate is a chance to climb up the rankings. Colleges that are looking to boost their ranking will try to increase the number of applications received in order to lower the percentage admitted. They may also elect to overweight one or more admissions factors, typically things like standardized scores.

Branding: With an increase in institutional branding, college spotlights are infusing spirit and changing the way students view programs and campus life. 

Diversity: The goal of expanding diversity on campus can be a detail that shifts acceptances.

International: Looking to add to the international student population on campus is another institutional goal that may introduce a new pattern to the acceptance numbers. 

Size: Medium and large universities are becoming more popular, so the competition is on the rise here. 

Practical majors: Many students are looking for professional majors such as technology, and attention is turning toward access to career centers beginning in the first year. The uptick in career-oriented major applications builds competition in the admission pool. 

Improved student success rates: Colleges may take time to focus on increasing their freshmen return rate or raising the number of students who complete college in four or six years. 

Increased revenue: Admission decisions can be shaped by an ability to pay. 

Enriched campus life: Colleges build-well rounded classes of students. Some years may see attention given to building a particular area of campus life. Think musicians for the marching band, for example. 

Sports: Finally, winning an NCAA championship, or even a breakout season by a stellar athlete or a surprise run through the tournament, may earn a school national recognition, and this may drive many more applicants their way. 

It’s a complex matrix, and most of the delicate balancing of factors happens behind the scenes. What can add a sudden trajectory to the mix is a winning basket in the closing seconds of overtime. It’s happened before and can happen again. So, whenever possible, talk to your bookie (ok, college counselor) whose job it is to keep up to date on trends. Like college coaches and scouts, they are already looking to next year to help you fill out a “bracket” that will bring you more cheers than tears next season.