GRAND FORKS — When Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie took the final snap in his now-famous 1984 performance against the Miami Hurricanes, he faced some of the longest odds of his career.
Boston College trailed by four points but was nearly half the field away with just seconds left on the clock. Flutie dropped back, stumbled, recovered and slung a 64-yard Hail Mary pass into the back of the end zone. Wide receiver Gerard Phelan caught it, giving Boston a 47-45 win and sealing Flutie’s Heisman Trophy. The moment is immortalized in college sports history.
The game was played on the Friday after Thanksgiving, with a massive national audience watching on television.
Boston College student applications soared the following year, and the “Flutie Effect” — by which a college earns fame and academic prominence through its sports heroes — was coined.
That, at least, is how the theory goes. Is it real?
Colleges in North Dakota and South Dakota, where the population is sparse and the sports teams are remarkably good, make a good laboratory for testing the theory. UND is a hockey powerhouse. NDSU has had a generation of success on the football field.
And SDSU, NDSU and UND all were among the final eight teams in the spring national football tournament, with each playing last month on national TV. SDSU played for the national title, falling in the final seconds to Sam Houston.
Shouldn’t that kind of athletics success boost application numbers?
“When our athletic team goes out to the East Coast, we are seeing a bit of an increase in applications coming from the East,” said Janelle Kilgore, the top admissions official at UND, pointing out that, yes, it looks like sports teams can make applications tick upward. “But we also have some nationally recognized programs that they’re coming to.”
That’s what most college admissions experts say. A big appearance on ESPN is not a guarantee that applications will pour through the mail slot. Instead, it’s something like a newly opened window — a chance for a university to reach out and make its case.
"It just lifts the university when an experience like that happens,” Shawn Helmbolt, SDSU’s admissions director, said last month after SDSU lost to Sam Houston in the Football Championship Subdivision championship game. “It amplifies that sense of pride that folks have connected to a place like SDSU, when there's that shared experience on the national level."
But there’s evidence that, however sparse, the Flutie Effect is indeed real. According to a 2014 study, from Economics of Education Review, there's an apparent link between schools with high-performing FBS football teams and better scores in the U.S. News and World Report listing. The better an FBS school does on the football field, the better its university ranking.
According to that study, faculty and administrators polled for the rankings — which make up just a portion of the results — tend to give universities higher marks when they have a football team that performs better. Just fielding an FBS team can help, the authors found.
"It's real, it's statistically significant, but — let's put it this way — I would not start a football team to boost my U.S. News and World Report rankings,” said Aleksandar Tomic, an economist at Boston College, speaking in an interview early last year.
Sean Mulholland, an economist at West Carolina University, is a co-author alongside Tomic. He pointed out that he’s mostly aware of North Dakota’s universities directly through their sports programs.
"The only thing I know about the University of North Dakota is its hockey team,” he said, recalling a Frozen Four tournament in New England. "I was in Boston Logan Airport, and I was surrounded by this green mob. Very pleasant people, but it was like, ‘yeah, OK, this is North Dakota.’"
Former UND President Mark Kennedy is convinced that strong athletics programs invite interest in a university. During an interview with the Grand Forks Herald in 2017, he said “I have said many times and will say many times that sports are the front porch of the university.
“What that means is that the programs are the ‘porch’ where you invite others onto the property; and once they’re there, they see what’s inside—the wonderful programs that you have, the great campus, the ambiance, the students,” he said. “It attracts your future students, in other words. And not just for your face-to-face programs, as it also helps create the brand for your online programs.”
Yet there are plenty of other things that can have a great effect on admissions. Helmbolt points out South Dakota’s recent success with a “college application week,” which slashes app fees and encourages students to apply for college. The lesson, of course, is that taking away obstacles like cost, or even paperwork, is far more important than sports success.
And there’s also something to be said about time and place. The Flutie Effect can seem a little bit like lightning — never really striking in quite the same place, or the same way, twice. University of Maryland, Baltimore County (or UMBC, as basketball fans know it) became a media darling in 2018 when it entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 16 seed and upset No. 1-ranked Virginia. Speculation instantly followed that UMBC was bound for some kind of financial glory.
“Through merely one basketball game, UMBC is poised to obtain massive financial benefits in terms of increased student applications, enhanced giving by alumni and improved apparel and merchandise sales,” Sports Illustrated speculated not long after the game.
That once-in-a-generation basketball upset is a lot different than NDSU’s sustained football success, or UND’s years of hockey dominance. But that’s the thing about the Flutie Effect: it’s hardly a hard or fast scientific principle.
And the Flutie Effect, even at Boston College, really wasn’t all it’s been advertised to be. Bill McDonald, a 1960s Boston College alum, wrote in 2003 in the school’s magazine that applications had been surging for years as the university admitted more women and embarked on a major marketing campaign.
So while college admissions offices acknowledge there’s plenty of advertising value in a good sports team, they’re keeping current with students, moving their marketing into the social media world and working with college search engines. They’re keenly aware, too, of the shifting focus onto the costs of education, and whether a degree will pay for itself.
“Overall, students really choose NDSU for academic programs, quality, job placement and affordability, and that campus environment,” said Laura Oster-Aaland, NDSU's vice-provost for student affairs and enrollment management. Sports success, she said, is just one part of it. “It’s one piece of a very complex puzzle.”