Despite popular myth, application data suggests that Purdue’s application numbers are not wholly affected by the performance of its athletic programs.
America’s attitude toward a college’s academics and athletics tends towards some interaction between the two programs. A school can be built almost solely on either its academic rigor and pedigree or on its athletic prowess. Many schools, especially in the Big Ten, do both.
Purdue is no exception. As the cradle of quarterbacks and astronauts alike, the University has built a multi-faceted reputation as a prestigious educational institution and a major-market sports franchise. A popular legend contends that success on the field translates to an influx of applications the next fall.
The legend concerns Doug Flutie. The Heisman trophy winner and CFL Hall of Fame quarterback inspired the phrase “the Flutie effect” — sometimes also called “the Flutie factor” — after he threw a last-second Hail Mary pass to lift his Boston College Eagles over the Miami Hurricanes in 1984.
That fall, BC saw a 16% increase in applications, according to a 2003 article in the Boston College Magazine. If the college is any indication, one shining moment can change a university’s fortunes for the better.
At first glance, it would appear that Purdue has followed this trend as well. Purdue’s application data from the Data Digest over the last 10 years was charted alongside the football and basketball teams’ Big Ten records from the previous season.
For football, this meant comparing the Fall 2008 application number to the Fall 2007 football season, and for basketball, the same application number was compared to the 2007-08 season.
From 2015 to 2018, the applications and basketball record increased in tandem, which would suggest a correlation. However, applications have steadily increased over the past 10 years — with a dramatic spike between 2013 and 2014 — in spite of fluctuation in the overall athletic records. This can also be attributed to Purdue’s tuition freeze, instituted during the 2012 academic year.
The tuition freeze, an administrative measure introduced at the beginning of Purdue President Mitch Daniels’ tenure, was designed to prevent Purdue’s tuition fees from increasing over a period of years. The measure has increased interest in the University since its introduction.
To further examine how closely Purdue’s data hews to this legend, the same data was put into a scatter plot, a statistical device used to directly correlate two variables. The plot showed little to no correlation between the athletic season records and the applications received the following fall.
Director of Admissions Mitch Warren expressed sentiments in line with the data’s conclusion.
“While we cheer loudly for the ‘Old Gold and Black,’ we believe Purdue students are attracted to Purdue for the various outstanding academic programs,” Warren said in an email. “It’s simply a very nice bonus that we have so many fine athletes and athletic teams.”
Doubt has been cast even on Flutie’s impact on BC’s enrollment. The same 2003 article noted that such an increase wasn’t unheard of for Boston College in 1984. The same spikes had been noted in the mid-1970s, soon after the college had launched a campaign to increase national enrollment independently of any athletic success. Indeed, the football program struggled throughout the 1970s, while the application rate steadily increased, the article notes.
This doesn’t mean that athletics are wholly unimportant to a university’s enrollment. The effect just may not be widespread enough to measurably impact a university’s enrollment.
“We certainly hope that the success of our programs brings exposure and notoriety to the university, just as success in academics, research and other areas does,” Senior Associate Athletics Director Tom Schott said in an email. “Many view athletics as the front porch of the university, and we do not take that ‘responsibility’ lightly.”