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The "Flutie factor" is now received wisdom. But is it true?

"Whether 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 football.

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 sputter.

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 nationally televised.

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."

Bill McDonald

Bill McDonald '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


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  » Article from the Diamondback (4/5/01)
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  » Poll casts doubt on Flutie factor: USA Today (3/20/01)
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