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CDC84
03-18-2008, 08:28 AM
From the Chronicle of Higher Ed, 3/17/2008


George Mason U. Drew Big Spike in Interest

Brad Wolverton

Cinderellas, listen up. On the eve of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, which starts this week, officials from George Mason University have released a report describing the effect of their miraculous Final Four run two years ago.

What George Mason officials found is promising news for the next team hoping to wear the glass slipper. In 2006, the Patriots knocked off three superpowers—Michigan State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Connecticut—before finally falling in the national semifinals.

In the two years since, the university has seen a 22-percent jump in freshman applications and a 350-percent rise in admissions inquiries. While officials of the public institution in Northern Virginia cannot attribute the increases solely to that one magical season, they believe the tournament played a significant part.

"We were already on the rise," said Robert E. Baker, an associate professor of sport management who studied the tournament's effects. "This just pushed the fast-forward button."

The effect was particularly pronounced in out-of-state applications, which have increased 40 percent since the 2005-6 academic year. Out-of-state students now make up 25 percent of the freshman class.

Donations to the Patriot Club, the university's athletics fund-raising arm, have also climbed. Annual gifts increased 52 percent from 2005-6 to 2006-7, to more than $300,000.

A bigger boost has come from NCAA tournament distributions—$1.8-million over six years. Mason has used the money to hire more people in its athletics department.

According to Mr. Baker's estimates, the university earned an eye-popping $677-million in free advertising during the 2006 tournament, as thousands of media outlets publicized its name. That helped the university clarify some misperceptions. For instance, most reporters referred to the Fairfax, Va., university as a "commuter school." While it has commuters, some 70 percent of George Mason's freshmen live on campus.

Mr. Baker says George Mason capitalized on the free publicity by having a coach who knew the university inside and out. Jim Larranaga, the head men's basketball coach, is also a faculty member in its School of Management. He handled scores of interview requests, including a spot on the Today show, frequently mentioning the university's academic strengths.

While few people expect to see another midmajor team reach this year's Final Four, Mr. Baker has some advice for any bracket-busters: "You obviously want your student-athletes to prepare for the task at hand," he says. "But it might not be a bad idea to teach them some talking points about the university—just in case they get in front of a camera."