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How a Successful College Football Season Will Affect Your Admissions Chances at Highly Selective Schools

Don’t be surprised if there is a spike in applications to all colleges, but particularly highly selective institutions, this year. Here are three obvious reasons.

  • The Department of Education estimates that the graduating class of 2009 is the largest in U.S. history, with about 3.2 million graduates.
  • Applications to highly selective schools continue to skyrocket. Last year, the Ivy League received 187,312 applications, an increase of 10.9% from the year before. Interestingly, these selective colleges have not admitted more students. While applications to Ivy League Schools have increased by 15.5% over the past three years, there has only been a 0.7% increase in the number of students admitted.
  • College enrollment increases during economic recessions. For the last decade, the percentage of high school graduates who go on to college has hovered in the mid-60s. In 2007, 64.1% of high school graduates were attending four-year colleges (NCES, 2007). It is expected that the percentage of high school graduates who will attend college in 2009 will increase, because of the current downturns in the global economy. Using history as our teacher, college enrollments increased around 3-6% during recessions. (Table 192, NCES, 2007.)

But if you’re looking at Northwestern, Duke, Rice and Vanderbilt Universities this fall, you should pay keen attention. Unlike other years, these top ranked private institutions are experiencing recent success in an unlikely place: the football field.

Unlike many institutions ranked in the top 25 of US News and World Report’s Annual College Rankings, Duke (#8), Northwestern (#12), Rice (#17) and Vanderbilt (#18) compete in the NCAA Football Subdivision (formerly Division I-A.) Unlike their Ivy League peers, who compete in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA), these medium sized research universities compete against football powerhouses. For example, Duke plays against Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Northwestern battles against Ohio State in the Big Ten, and Vanderbilt holds its own against SEC rivals Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. Although Rice belongs to Conference USA, the Owls often play against the University of Texas in a classic David vs. Goliath match up. So, it comes as no surprised that these schools usually lose to rivals from larger, well-funded colleges where winning college football games is a tradition.

What is unique about this year? Duke, Northwestern, Rice and Vanderbilt are surprising everyone by winning, not just once, but regularly. Midway through the college football season, each school is posting winning records and don’t be surprised if one or two of these schools will be competing in a coveted season-ending bowl game. Two of the most surprising results are from Duke and Rice. Last year, Rice was 3-9 and Duke was 1-8 (beating Northwestern, ironically). As of the end of October, Rice is 5-3 and Duke is 4-4.

Widely known as the “Flutie Effect” in college admissions, a winning football season usually results in a swell of applications. The increased attention given to these schools by sports media coupled with increased campus morale among students, faculty and alumni effects on prospective applicants positively. So, if these colleges continue winning on the football field this season, don’t be surprised if their admissions offices reap the benefits. And if you’re looking at one of these colleges, be advised: you may be facing an uphill battle to win admission.