"Flutie factor" is now received wisdom. But is it true?
it's called the 'Flutie factor' or 'mission-driven intercollegiate
athletics,' the effect of having a winning sports team is showing
up at admissions offices nationwide." —USA Today, "Winning One
for the Admissions Office," July 11, 1997
The first recorded use of "Flutie factor" had nothing to do with
college applications. It came in a Washington Post article
on November 29, 1984, only days after Doug Flutie '85 threw the
Hail Mary pass that beat Miami in what has become the most storied
game in BC football history. The factor in this case was the dilemma
that Flutie presented to NFL scouts trying to determine whether
BC's undersized (5'9", 176-pound) quarterback could justify the
money a professional team would need to pay for his services.
By the time the term made its July 1997 appearance in USA Today
in what has become its "classic" form—linked to increases in applications—the
newspaper was able to claim that "Boston College's example is so
widely known in admissions circles, it's called the Doug Flutie
factor. The surge in interested students was almost as miraculous
as the diminutive quarterback's fabled touchdown pass." USA Today
went on to say that applications to BC "went up 30 percent in two
years" as a result of Flutie's association with the University.
Subsequent references to the Flutie factor have cited applications
increases of 33 percent (in the New York Times, 3/31/99),
"through the roof" (Washington Post, 4/24/00), 40 percent
(The Diamondback, University of Maryland student newspaper,
4/5/01), and 25 percent—a gain achieved, according to the Christian
Science Monitor of January 15, 2003, "after Doug Flutie threw
a Hail Mary pass to win the 1984 national championship."
Whatever the percent increases or mythical championships attached
to it, the Flutie factor has sufficient authority today that some
universities have invested in college football in the hope of replicating
what they believe happened at Boston College in the mid-1980s.
In a January 2003 New York Times Magazine cover story called
"Football Is a Sucker's Game," writer Michael Sokolove said that
officials at the University of South Florida were building a major
football program in the hope that "the kind of magic" ascribed to
"the Flutie effect" would then strike the Tampa campus. And they
aren't the only ones. The State University of New York at Buffalo
and the University of Connecticut, for example, have both moved
to Division I-A in football in recent years, and officials at both
institutions cite the Flutie factor as a basis for those actions.
Sokolove himself credited it with "transforming BC from a regional
to a national university."
So was the Flutie factor real? The answer is that Doug Flutie increased
applications to Boston College, but not nearly as much as the public
and the media believe or as academic planners at some institutions
seem to hope in justifying the millions of dollars they invest in
Applications to BC did surge 16 percent in 1984 (from 12,414 to
14,398), and then another 12 percent (to 16,163) in 1985. But these
jumps were not anomalous for BC, which in the previous decade had
embarked on a program to build national enrollment using market
research, a network of alumni volunteers, strategically allocated
financial aid, and improvements to residence halls and academic
facilities, says John Maguire '61, Ph.D.'66. The chairman of the
board of Maguire Associates, a well-known enrollment management
consulting firm, Maguire headed admissions at BC from 1971 to 1983.
"Doug Flutie cemented things, but the J. Donald Monan factor and
the Frank Campanella factor are the real story," he said, referring
to BC's former president and executive vice president.
Michael Malec, a BC sports sociologist who has studied the relationship
between athletic success and enrollment, notes that in 1972 the
College of A&S opened its doors to women, and in 1974 the University
acquired three residence halls at Newton College and built three
more residence halls (the Mods, Edmond's, and Rubenstein), adding
Walsh Hall in 1980, effectively doubling the pool of applicants
and the housing capacity. "Doug Flutie made some terrific contributions
to BC," said Malec, "but his personal impact on enrollment during
this period has been exaggerated."
Applications to BC had in fact increased 15 percent in 1973 (the
year after Fr. Monan took office), 13 percent in 1975, and 14 percent
in 1976—years when football was successful but not remarkably so.
Between 1970 and 1983, in fact, applications to BC increased in
12 of 13 years, no matter the fortunes of the football team, and
they nearly doubled (6,605 to 12,411) between 1970 and 1978.
Ah, 1978. If Flutie in 1984 was the apotheosis of BC football, the
0-11 record of the 1978 Eagles was its modern statistical nadir.
(The spiritual nadir would not arrive until 1996, with revelations
of team members who bet on their own games.) Yet applications in
1978 went up more than 9 percent, and the next few years saw continued
increases at the same time as the football program continued to
In a 1994 article in the Economics of Education Review, BC
economist Robert Murphy reported on a study of 55 universities with
I-A football programs (BC was not in the study group) that found
a positive and statistically significant correlation between a winning
football season and increases in applications. But the predicted
application increase based on the research was a modest 1.3 percent
tied to a three-win improvement over the previous season.
"Sports can attract an applicant's attention," said John Mahoney
'79, BC's director of undergraduate admission. "But then the institution
has to stand up to the scrutiny that applicants and their parents
are going to apply to the US News rating, physical plant,
campus culture, percent of classes taught by full-time faculty,
and how many graduates are employed at graduation or go on to law
or medical school. It's been my experience that folks who are making
six-figure investments on behalf of their children tend not to get
distracted by box scores, one way or the other."
In fact, in 1997, one year after revelations about gambling resulted
in a coach's resignation, 13 student-athlete suspensions, an investigation
by the NCAA, and hundreds of embarrassing media reports, applications
for admission came in at 16,455, virtually unchanged from the previous
year. Two years later, when applications jumped by a record 17 percent
to 19,746, the surge followed a 4-7 year for football.
How does an idea like the "Flutie factor" become sufficiently
rooted that the New York Times cites it as a given without
further comment and some universities invest millions of dollars
in its enchanting possibilities?
First, the premise seems intuitively true. Second, the premise is
sometimes demonstrable. The number of applications to BC did increase
30 percent over Flutie's junior and senior years.
At Georgetown University, whose men's basketball team appeared in
NCAA championship games in 1982, 1984, and 1985, applications rose
45 percent between 1983 and 1986. And freshman enrollment at Gonzaga
University rose from 549 to 979 between 1997 and 2001, years in
which Gonzaga's men's basketball team outplayed some of the nation's
powerhouses in the NCAA tournament. Were there other reasons for
the rise of Georgetown and Gonzaga? No doubt, but they were not
Asked about the media's attachment to the Flutie factor, Barbara
Wallraff, who writes the "Word Court" column for the Atlantic
Monthly, said, "It's painful to fact-check everything.
Media will often reprint what has been published, especially when
it appears in reputable publications. 'Flutie factor' is a short,
alliterative way to describe something that is complicated to explain.
But what makes a good term is not always the literal truth."
'68 is director of communications for the Lynch School of Education.
Photo: Doug Flutie (fist raised), seconds after throwing his
1984 Hail Mary pass. Courtesy of BC Media Relations