The Impact of Elite Individual Athletic Performance on University Applicants for Admission in NCAA Division I-A Football

Submitted by Chad McEvoy, Ed. D*

1* Illinois State University, Normal,IL 61761

Dr. Chad McEvoy is an assistant professor in the school of kinesiology and recreation at Illinois State University. He holds an Ed. D. in Sport Administration with a minor in statistics and Research Methods from the University of Northern Colorado; a master of science in Sport Management from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a bachelor’s degree in sport management from Iowa State University.


The purpose of this study was to determine the effect of elite individual athletes in NCAA Division I-A football on undergraduate admissions applicants to their respective institutions, an examination of what the media has labeled as the “Flutie Factor”. Using a pretest-posttest control group design, a statistically significant time-by-group interaction effect was found, with universities realizing a 6.59 percent increase in undergraduate applicants for admission in the year following having a football player finish among the top five vote recipients for the Heisman Trophy.


For two decades, the media has used the term “Flutie Factor” to describe the potential impact success in intercollegiate athletics may have on recruiting students, not just student-athletes, to attend colleges and universities. The origin of the term “Flutie Factor” is the 30 percent increase in admissions applicants to Boston College following quarterback Doug Flutie winning the Heisman Trophy, awarded each season to the best college football player in the country (Marklein, 2001). Similarly, Georgetown University had a 45 percent increase in admissions applicants in the mid-1980’s over a three year period in the wake of three Final Four appearances in the men’s basketball with star player Patrick Ewing. Northwestern University realized a 21 percent increase in applicants in 1995 a year after winning the Big Ten Conference football championship and Gonzaga University saw an increase of 59 percent in admission applicants from 1997 to 2000 following three years of unprecedented men’s basketball success (Dodd, 1997; McEvoy, 2005). These situations and several others have been used as evidence of the “Flutie Factor” phenomenon.

Related Literature

Several studies have investigated the relationship between college sports performance and applicants to universities (Allen & Peters, 1982; Chressanthis & Grimes, 1993; McEvoy, 2005; Mixon & Hsing, 1994; Mixon & Ressler, 1995; Murphy & Trandel, 1994; Toma & Cross, 1998; Zimbalist, 2001; see also Frank, 2004; Litan, Orszag, & Orszag, 2003; Sperber, 2000). Allen and Peters (1982) found a positive relationship existed between the performance of the men’s basketball team at DePaul University and enrollment at that institution. Allen and Peters found gender to be a factor influencing this relationship, with males more likely to be influenced by men’s basketball team success than female students. Chressanthis and Grimes (1993) studied the effect of various athletic variables, including team performance in major sports programs, postseason participation, and television appearances, on freshman enrollment at a single institution, Mississippi State University, from 1971 to 1991. While controlling for several other institutional variables potentially influencing enrollment, Chressanthis and Grimes found football winning percentage to be a statistically significant predictor of first-year enrollment. The authors found that each one percent increase in the percentage of wins from the previous season increased enrollment by 3.8 students. Murphy and Trandel (1994) utilized an ordinary least squares regression model to study the relationship between football success, measured as within-conference winning percentage, and applications for freshman admission, while controlling for factors such as state population, income, and tuition costs. Murphy and Trandel discovered that in the period of time studied, 1978 to 1987, football success had a moderate positive impact on applicants.

Mixon and Hsing (1994) and Mixon and Ressler (1995) investigated factors affecting the recruitment of out-of-state students to universities. These related studies found that athletic prominence and success were related to increased out-of-state enrollment. Toma and Cross (1998) examined schools that won national championships in football or men’s basketball between 1979 and 1992 and the subsequent effect on undergraduate admissions applications. Using comparable peer institutions to those schools winning championships, Toma and Cross created a control group of purposes of comparison. The authors found that winning a national championship in football or men’s basketball resulted in a significant increase in applicants, both in absolute terms and relative to peer institutions. McEvoy (2005) studied the relationship between dramatic changes in athletic team performance and admissions applicants. McEvoy found that an increase in football winning percentage of greater than .250 resulted in an average 6.1 percent increase in undergraduate applicants.

On whole, these studies show evidence that college sports team success results in a moderate increase in applicants to universities. None of the aforementioned studies, however, truly examine the existence of a “Flutie Factor” as it has been labeled by the media. Inherent in this term is a possible impact of an elite individual athlete on admissions applicants rather than team performance, hence the phrase “Flutie Factor” instead of “Boston College Football Team Factor”. All of the previous literature identified here utilized team performance, rather than individual performance, as an independent variable under investigation. Not a single study was identified examining the effect of elite individual athletic performance on applicants for admission. This study will fill this gap in the literature.



NCAA institutions with student-athletes ranking among the top five finishers, or vote recipients in college football’s Heisman Trophy award balloting between the years 1998 and 2003 were utilized as subjects in the study. The Heisman Trophy, awarded every December to the sport’s outstanding player each season by a vote of selected media and former award winners, is widely considered to be among sport’s most prestigious honors, potentially generating substantial media attention to schools with athletes in consideration for the award. As such, this distinction was used to define elite individual athletic performance, or “star athletes”, in college football for the context of this investigation. Further, the top five finishers were utilized as subjects in this study as five was seen as being inclusive enough to generate sufficient sample size and statistical power yet restrictive enough to truly identify the truly elite individual athletic performances in the sport each season. The time span of 1988 to 2002 was chosen because of validity concerns in comparing the current athletes and higher education today with that beyond 15 years ago and to the availability of applicant data prior to 1988.

Based on previous literature, team performance was identified as an important potentially confounding variable relative to the examination of the impact of elite athletes’ performance on admissions applications. For example, when applications to Boston College rose dramatically in the 1980’s, was this due to the “Flutie Factor”, meaning the elite individual performance, or rather due to the performance of the entire team? In order to isolate the effect of elite individual performance from overall team performance or success, as well as to control for any time trends in higher education applicants, a non-experimental replication of a pretest-posttest control group research design was utilized. Each subject school as described previously with a Heisman Trophy top five finisher from 1988-2002 was assigned to the “experimental” group while the football program finishing immediately above and below the school in that year’s final Associated Press rankings was identified and assigned to the control group. For example, the University of Nebraska was included in the experimental group for 2001 due to Eric Crouch winning the Heisman Trophy. Since Nebraska was ranked eighth in the nation in the final Associated Press poll that season, both Louisiana State University and the University of Colorado, who finished seventh and ninth respectively, were included in the control group for that year in order to control for any effects of team performance on the numbers of applicants for admission to those institutions in the subsequent year. If a subject institution did not finish the year ranked among the top 25 schools as listed in the rankings, no comparable school was assigned to the control group. This sampling process resulted in a usable sample size of 128 subjects, 68 of which were in the experimental group and 60 of which were in the control group.


Upon compilation of subjects in both the experimental and control groups, the number of undergraduate applicants for admission to each subject institution was identified for both the year in which the subject institution had a top five Heisman Trophy finisher and the subsequent year. Just a single year’s effect was utilized as that time period was seen as realizing the most direct effect, if any, from the increased exposure brought to the institution due to its elite individual athletic performance. Applicant data was compiled as reported in The College Board College Handbook, a leading higher education directory and information resource published annually. Each annual edition of this publication from 1990 through 2005 was used to obtain this applicant data.

A 2×2 mixed-factor analysis of variance (ANOVA) design was used to examine differences in undergraduate admissions applicants between schools with top five Heisman finishers and the control group from the year in which the elite individual athletic performance took place to the subsequent year. Both main effects and the interaction term were examined, although the interaction term was considered to be of primary importance, as it was that aspect of the ANOVA test directly answering the research question of whether differences existed between the control Heisman Trophy finalist group and the control group in undergraduate admissions applicants across time. A significance level of  = .05 was established a priori.


Table 1 provides descriptive data for both the experimental and control groups of subjects over time. The experimental group of subjects, those institutions with a Heisman Trophy top five finisher in the years between 1988 and 2002, observed a mean increase in applications from 12,865 during the academic year of the top five finish to 13,713 the subsequent year, an increase of 6.59 percent. The control group realized a 3.33 percent increase in applicants from one year to the next from 12,321 to 12,731. Thus, schools with a top five finisher in Heisman Trophy balloting had nearly twice the increase in undergraduate applicants for admission in the subsequent academic year than did institutions with a similar level of team success in football.

As stated previously, a 2×2 mixed factor ANOVA was utilized to determine if statistically significant differences existed in undergraduate admissions applicants between the experimental and control groups from one year to the next. Univariate ANOVA results were examined and reported here due to the lack of concern about sphericity assumption violations as just two time trials were utilized in the research design. A significant main effect for time was observed, F(1,126)=34.141, p


The purpose of this study was to determine what effect an elite individual athlete in NCAA Division I-A football has on undergraduate admissions applicants to their respective institutions, an examination of what the media has labeled as the “Flutie Factor”. Using a pretest-posttest control group design, a statistically significant time-by-group interaction effect was found, with institutions realizing a 6.59 percent increase in undergraduate applicants for admission in the year following having a football player finish among the top five vote getters for the Heisman Trophy.
Although this was the first study to isolate the effect of individual athletic performance on applicants for admission, these findings support previous related research on the impact of athletic team success on applicants. Previous studies such as Chressanthis and Grimes (1993), Murphy and Trandel (1994), and McEvoy (2005) each found a statistically significant, albeit moderate, positive relationship between athletic success and admissions applications and/or enrollment, as were the results here.

The results of this study have clear implications for universities with regard to admissions. Assuming the increased applicants to a university in the wake of a top five Heisman Trophy finisher are of comparable academic quality to other applicants (see Frank, 2004 for a comprehensive discussion of the relationship between atheltic success and student quality), the university finds itself in a dilemma with only positive outcomes. One option is to admit more applicants of comparable quality, likely leading to increased enrollment and, thus, revenue for the institution. The second option is to increase the rigor in its admission process, admitting the same number of students as previous, albeit with stronger credentials assuming the quality of applicants is somewhat normally distributed. A third option would involve some sort of hybrid approach of the previous two options by admitting an only slighly higher number of the increased applicant pool while also slightly increasing admissions standards. The university benefits regardless of which option is chosen.

Limitations and Future Research

It should be noted that, while a statistically significant elite individual athlete effect was found here, each college or university was impacted differently by this effect. For example, admissions applicants increased by nearly 2,000, or 15 percent, at Florida State University in 1994, the year after Charlie Ward won the Heisman Trophy. The previous year, following Gino Torretta winning the Heisman Trophy, applicants to the University of Miami, Torretta’s school, actually decreased by more than 600. There are clearly other factors that affect admissions applications, and it is likely that these factors differ by institution. Further research is needed to understand these factors affecting applicants. Additionally, schools should be studied on an individual basis to account for institutional differences.

Research is also needed examining the admissions applications effect of elite individual athletic performances in sports other than football. Based on the literature in athletic team performance, men’s basketball is the other logical sport that might show a similar star athlete effect on applicants for admission.


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Chad McEvoy Table 1

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