Wednesday, December 7, 2022

How a Small, Little-Known College Is Seizing Its Moment of Fame

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In the hours before the Saint Peter’s University basketball team departed for the third round of the NCAA men’s tournament on Wednesday, the tiny Jesuit campus thrummed with energy.

Outside the student center, students clad in the college’s colors streamed over a bed of cherry-blossom petals freshly shed from the trees. A video screen overlooking a busy street in the middle of campus broadcast inspirational messages: “sweet history,” “Jersey City tough,” and “shining bright, Peacocks win!” Peacocks — the university’s unusual mascot — dangled as jewelry from the business-school dean’s ears.

In the cafeteria, members of the basketball team ate lunch as on any other day — even as they became household names online for their shocking wins last week over the University of Kentucky, one of the nation’s most storied college-basketball programs, and Murray State University.

Antoinette Ishola, a sophomore and student-government leader, recalled watching her mom dance around their living room after they watched the Peacocks’ victory over Kentucky together. “It’s honestly home away from home for a lot of us,” said Jana Khalil, a freshman and fellow student-government leader, of Saint Peter’s, “and I’m happy that other people can see how great it is.”

Outside of Jersey City, not many people knew about Saint Peter’s until last week. Then Google searches for the institution spiked sharply; at one point, the university’s website crashed.

It’s a story that’s been told before: the “Cinderella” college making a deep run into March Madness and seizing a moment of fame. But the moment feels especially striking at Saint Peter’s, which ranks 279th in athletics spending among the 353 teams in the NCAA’s Division I. Some colleges bet big on sports to try to set themselves apart; Saint Peter’s wasn’t exactly trying to get here.

Implications for such a moment stretch well beyond athletics — especially as small, tuition-dependent private colleges like Saint Peter’s try to recover from pandemic-era hits to enrollment and finances.

Amid the excitement, Saint Peter’s leaders are grappling with how to leverage the attention in a way that’ll benefit the university for years to come. While the short-term buzz is captivating, enrollment experts said, sustaining that momentum is easier said than done.

A ‘Big Payoff’?

The university’s 30-acre campus spans just a few blocks of Jersey City, surrounded by brick apartment buildings, bustling Bergen Avenue, and an array of restaurants with ties to countries around the world, reflecting the city’s ethnic diversity. Saint Peter’s, which enrolls mostly students from the area, is known for its diversity. The student body is 48 percent Hispanic, 18 percent Black, and 8 percent Asian.

Under the leadership of Eugene J. Cornacchia, the president, the university has expanded its academic offerings. The institution recently established schools of nursing and education, in addition to rolling out its first doctoral programs.

Until this month, it was certainly not known as a basketball school. At about $18 million, Kentucky spends more than double on its men’s basketball program than the $7 million Saint Peter’s spends on its entire athletics department. Kentucky has about 21,928 undergraduates, while Saint Peter’s has 2,134.

Cornacchia has watched the week’s events unfold with a range of emotions. He said people have come out of the woodwork to support the team, driving fund raising to unprecedented levels.

Shelves in the campus store have been all but picked clean. The university’s top Amazon vendor sold $40,000 in merchandise last week. Online orders have come from 45 different states.

When Cornacchia hired the men’s basketball coach, Shaheen Holloway, in 2018, he agreed to increase the team’s budget slightly, to upgrade its facilities and aid recruitment. Construction on a new, 3,200-seat gym wrapped up this past fall.

While the university hasn’t always been as supportive of its sports programs as it is now, Cornacchia said athletics could enhance students’ experiences and bolster academics by driving dollars to the institution.

Cornacchia said the “big payoff” from all the hoopla would be an influx of money that the institution could use to improve affordability and access. More than half of its students are the first in their families to go to college, and the vast majority receive financial aid.

In a lot of places, there’s a perception that athletics and academics are somehow at odds.

“In a lot of places, there’s a perception that athletics and academics are somehow at odds,” he said. “I don’t know exactly how much money this is going to mean to us in the long run, but whatever it is, we are going to be very prudent about the balance between athletics and academics.”

Saint Peter’s has already seen a modest increase in the number of applications for admission. Over the past week, the admissions office has fielded calls from people across the country, many of whom just wanted to say congratulations and wish the team luck, said Elizabeth Sullivan, vice president for enrollment management and marketing. She said her office was preparing for a swell of interest over the next one to two years.

Saint Peter’s hopes to expand enrollment to 2,500 undergraduates and 4,000 total students, with about 50 percent living on campus, according to Angeline Boyer, director of university communications..

Whether or not Cinderella runs actually yield lasting change at colleges and universities has been a point of research and debate for some time.

David Strauss, a principal at the Art & Science Group, a consulting firm, said there’s no doubt that athletics and a culture of school spirit can be a major draw for prospective students. But a single glory year won’t do the trick. “One-time success can lead to some spike in attention, but it’s likely to be fleeting,” Strauss said.

A study published in the Journal of Sports Economics in 2020 found that surprise success in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament had little to no impact on the number of applications received in the following years. But first-year enrollment at private colleges increased for two years — about 4.4 percent total — after a Cinderella run.

A Pivotal Moment

Mary Kate Naatus, dean of the Frank J. Guarini School of Business, has ties to the community as deep as many of her students do. Her parents attended Saint Peter’s. Living in the area, she said, she’s walked into local businesses wearing Saint Peter’s apparel and been met with cheers.

Sitting in her office on Wednesday, she gestured down the hall, where students in the business-consulting program were meeting with the university’s local business partners. Naatus said businesses were more excited now than ever before in the nearly 10 years they’ve worked with the university. She hopes it can continue to leverage the national attention in ways that promote the university as well as students themselves.

“It’s going to be a conversation piece to break the ice for every single person going into a job interview,” Naatus said. “We’re going to have a lot more brand recognition, so I think it’s going to help students ease into conversations.”

The thrill has also provided a much-needed boost to campus morale, which had taken a hit during the pandemic, said Mark Rotundo, a senior majoring in political science and minoring in journalism.

“This is the first time I’ve felt like I’ve got this full university experience — going to the game, ranting and raving and yelling about our sports team, and wearing merch like every day,” Rotundo told The Chronicle. “It’s been an amazing, amazing experience.”

Rotundo, the editor of the campus newspaper, called a newsroom meeting on Wednesday to plan coverage. He and his team of student journalists crammed into a small office space, fingers gliding over keyboards and scrawling notes.

As the leader of the Saint Peter’s Tribune, Rotundo is excited by the opportunity to tell a story that big news outlets across the country are clamoring for, and hopes the experience will aid the paper’s recruitment and show its value to newer staffers.

Like the 1,000plus other members of the Saint Peter’s community who secured tickets from the university for the team’s next game, Rotundo will make the 90-mile trip to Philadelphia on Friday.

Tickets sold out within minutes. One of the few people not going is Boyer, the spokesperson. “I’ve got to man the ship here,” she said to a colleague when asked for perhaps the fourth time that afternoon. Resting atop a table, Boyer’s nails were painted a deep Peacock blue.

She laughed. “I might be changing my mind, though, because really everyone’s going.”



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