March Madness, SEM Mayhem, and “Geek Alternative Brackets”

I grew up in North Carolina where the state religion is College Basketball. I have vivid memories of my teachers wheeling in the A/V Cart and putting a paper clip in the cable jack the back of a huge CRT TV just to get the signal to put on whatever ACC or other March Madness game was happening at the time. March was a month of “worksheets” and very little instruction. It was horrible for my education, but wonderful for the soul.

March Madness is one of the few times a year that colleges and universities capture the national imagination. Many offices have a bracket pool, and who could blame them?! It is fun to watch Buffalo beat Arizona and buzzer beaters and the 98-year-old nun from Loyola-Chicago. How one picks a bracket is a subject of much debate. Some choose teams based on their colors, uniforms, and mascots. Others pick teams based on basketball statistics – free throw percentage, offensive rebounds, etc. Others do what University of San Francisco Dean Don Heller calls “geek alternative brackets.”


Geek alternative brackets are brackets that focus on some aspect of colleges and universities that only higher education geeks scholars and policy wonks find interesting. They take a measure – total cost, retention rate, etc – and use that as a predictor. Perhaps the most famous is The Center for Responsive Politics’s “K-Street Classic” which uses lobbying expenditures to select teams. Robert Kelchen, an Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Seton Hall who has been tremendously helpful to me in my young career, produces a net-price bracket where the schools with the cheapest net price (total cost of attendance less scholarships and other grant funding) get the most wins.

Earlier this week, I asked the Twitter-verse what nerd bracket they wanted to see. After running a poll, I’ll be producing a “geek alternative bracket” that has to do with federal appropriations and congressional seniority. I’ll be putting that bracket together after we know which teams will be in the Sweet Sixteen.

Until then, take a look at the “nerd bracket” Final Fours I make as part of an annual lecture I give to my Strategic Enrollment Management class. In this lecture, I try to get my class to see the patterns that they’ve probably already internalized – that low rates of retention tend to align with low residence hall capacity, lower SAT scores, and lower selectivity.

I call this exercise “SEM Mayhem” – short for “Strategic Enrollment Management Mayhem.” This year’s edition of that lecture was particularly fun for me, as two of my almae matres – Duke and Davidson – each managed to win a “Geek Alternative Bracket”: Duke in SAT scores, and Davidson in residence hall capacity.  It is easy to house most of your students when you have only around 1,900 total (looking at you, Wildcats), and Duke’s SAT scores barely edged out Penn this year.

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