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March Madness win brings college admissions windfall

Villanova Wildcats celebrate after defeating the North Carolina Tar Heels 77-74 to win the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game at NRG Stadium on April 4, 2016 in Houston.
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Villanova Wildcats celebrate after defeating the North Carolina Tar Heels 77-74 to win the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game at NRG Stadium on April 4, 2016 in Houston.

A March Madness victory in men's college basketball apparently lifts more than a school's spirits.

National attention from the tournament also boosts applications from prospective students, according to an analysis of past wins by Moody's Investors Service.

As the Villanova Wildcats celebrated their victory this week in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, the school is basking in the national attention brought by the team's buzzer-beating, 77-74, win over the North Carolina Tar Heels.

On Friday, the city of Philadelphia threw the team a parade that wound through Center City past City Hall, joined by the school's band and cheerleaders, along streets lined with cheering fans. The school's suburban campus was closed and all classes cancelled to allow Villanova students, faculty and employees to attend.

A three-point buzzer-beater gave the Wildcats the win Monday against North Carolina.

When the cheering stops, the staff over at the admissions office should get ready for a surge in applications from prospective students, according to Moody's analysts.

They found colleges and universities that do well in the NCAA Men's Division I basketball tournament often see a surge in applications well above the average gains during the same period for all public or private universities.

The University of Connecticut felt the admissions bump twice in the last five years, following the Huskies' tournament wins in 2011 (applications up 27 percent) and 2014 (up 35 percent).

Many school admissions offices compete as hard for top students and donations as their basketball teams do on the court. The national attention from a March Madness victory amounts to a windfall for a school's marketing efforts.

"This trend is most pronounced for "Cinderella" schools, teams not traditionally known for basketball that have unexpected success in the (tournament), or underdog teams that are not top seeded," the analysts found.

A school doesn't even have to win the title to enjoy a bump in applications, according to the April 7 report. In 2013, ninth-seeded Wichita State made it all the way to the Final Four before losing to top-seeded Louisville in the semifinals. Applications jumped 29 percent.

In 2010, the fifth-seeded Butler Bulldogs lost to Duke's Blue Devils by just two points. But that was enough to help boost applications by 43 percent, more than twice the national average.

A tournament win can also help boost a school's bottom line, the analysts noted, through increased alumni contributions, especially for athletic programs. Public colleges and universities also benefit from a bigger pool of out-of-state applicants because those students typically pay higher tuition than in-state students.

That mix of higher-tuition students can also help boost a school's credit rating when it borrows money in the bond market, which is why Moody's pays attention to the effect of March Madness wins.

But it's not clear just how long the basketball bump can be sustained for teams that don't maintain a winning record, an accomplishment that doesn't come cheap.

"Successful collegiate athletic programs are difficult to build and expensive for universities to maintain, including coaching salaries, financial aid and athletic facility capital investments," the analysts noted.