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Gonzaga Uses Basketball To Boost Academic Profile

SPOKANE, Wash. - This year’s March Madness has been full of surprises.

The University of Oregon Ducks have made it to the Sweet Sixteen -- the final 16 teams in the national college men's basketball tournament. But No. 1-seed Gonzaga University is out, after a shocking defeat to Wichita State over the weekend. Students and alumni of the small Catholic school in Spokane may be in mourning. But as far as school admissions go, Gonzaga has already won, big time.

There are a couple of things that pop up more frequently on the Gonzaga campus at this time of year. One is “Go Zags” posters for the basketball team. The other?

High school students.

Nine high schoolers are taking a campus tour to imagine life as a Gonzaga student.

Several come from the Northwest, the longtime source for Gonzaga’s student body.

But then we get to a kid named Chris Egan, from New Jersey.

Egan is what Gonzaga is seeing more of. He didn't hear about the university from a college fair or a friend who came here. He heard about it through basketball.

"My family's a pretty big basketball fan, especially during March Madness," he says. "So, I always heard about Gonzaga, and I just wanted to come out and experience it.”

And that he's on campus, he says “I like it a lot.”

“Basketball has allowed us to tell our story to more people,” explains Julie McCulloh, the head of admissions at Gonzaga. She says the number of applications to the university has more than tripled since 1999. That was the first year the basketball team made the national tournament.

Now, 15 years into the streak, McCulloh says the university is able to be choosier in admissions. That’s driven up the average GPA and SAT scores of incoming students.

“So, the academic profile of the student body since 1999 has increased tremendously,” McCulloh says.

Of course, it's not all due to basketball. The university has also beefed up its honors programs and taken other steps to court top-tier applicants.

Josh Armstrong is a professor in Gonzaga's leadership program. He says he's seen the successes on the court spill over into donations and the more hard-to-define area of reputation.

“For sure Gonzaga's national profile is definitely different," Armstrong says, "If I'm at an academic conference almost anywhere in the country, you say 'Gonzaga University' and people have a sense for what that is.”

But Charles Clotfelter, an economist at Duke University who studies higher education, is among many critics who warn sports can eclipse a university's core function, which is educating students.

“It's certainly a fact that we know certain universities much more for their athletics than their academics,” he says.

In fact, a January report from the American Institutes for Research found some big public universities spend as much as six times on each athlete as they do to educate the average student.

Still, Clotfelter acknowledges what's known as the “Flutie Effect” – after quarterback Doug Flutie who started his football career at Boston College.

“This is a real thing – success in football or basketball, that leads to a jump the next year in applications.”

In Idaho, Boise State University saw applications go up almost overnight after a spectacular win in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. A spokesman for the university says football has helped BSU's aggressive expansion since then.

Outside an auditorium at Gonzaga, Andrew Opila prepares to talk with a group of prospective students. He’s from Arizona and will graduate from the Spokane school this spring. Opila is a huge Zags fan, but he says that's not what brought him here four years ago.

“I think when it comes down to it, you go to school to get an education," he says. "And I think Gonzaga would still be Gonzaga without basketball. But … it just makes it so much better.”

On the Gonzaga website, there's all the usual information designed to make the sell to prospective students, including information about the basketball team. And then there's this banner: it says, “Beyond Basketball.” 

On the Web:

Gonzaga: Beyond Basketball - Gonzaga University - Gonzaga Athletics