CORVALLIS - For the third consecutive year, Oregon State University has received a record number of student applications and school officials say the numbers could translate to a total enrollment of more than 17,000 students in the fall.

Last year, enrollment rose 4.5 percent to 16,777 students. The increase continued a strong upward trend in enrollment that brought nearly 3,000 additional students to the university in the last four years. In 1996, OSU had an enrollment of only 13,784 students, a 30-year low.

Bob Bontrager, assistant provost for enrollment management, anticipates approximately 3,000 new freshmen to enroll at OSU for fall 2001. That's the highest number of freshmen students to enroll at the university since the late-1960s.

In 1980, OSU set a school record, enrolling 17,689 students.

The university has already received more than 10,300 applications from perspective students this year, compared to 9,611 at the same time last year.

"It's really an indication of the many good things that are happening at OSU," Bontrager said. "It's hard to point to any one reason for this kind of success. It's really an accumulation of different things."

Bontrager said improved recruiting efforts and increased marketing have combined to push up the number of students applying to OSU.

"Applications don't always translate into enrollment, but it's a good indicator," Bontrager said. "Right now is the prime time for high school seniors to decide where they're going to college. Many schools have a deposit deadline of May 1. This is a very busy time for us."

Another factor contributing to the increased student interest in OSU is success on the football field. This is generally referred to as the "Flutie Factor," named after former Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, whose game-winning touchdown pass against the University of Miami in the mid-1980s led to an increase in the number of student applications at Boston College.

"There's no doubt in my mind that winning the Fiesta Bowl in convincing fashion over Notre Dame boosted student interest in our school," he said.

In fact, last November OSU was running behind in student applications and school officials were talking about flattening enrollment projections. The day before the Fiesta Bowl, applications from freshmen were down 9 percent.

Now, three months later, freshmen applications are nearly 8 percent ahead of last year's pace.

"It's phenomenal," Bontrager said. "You just don't see that kind of turnaround in this business. The game was perfectly timed for us because we had sent a mailing to high school seniors in mid-December and we hit them again in mid-January. In February we ramped up our marketing efforts. We were perfectly positioned to take advantage of the success we had on the football field."

Could the same results have been achieved without the Fiesta Bowl victory?

"No way," Bontrager said. "It all built on each other. When you see the kind of rapid increase in applications that we saw following the Fiesta Bowl you know that it's a bunch of factors working together and you can't make those gains without all of those parts."

OSU isn't the first university to experience increased student interest related to athletic success. Bontrager said the University of Oregon and Washington State University both saw double-digit enrollment increases following their recent Rose Bowl appearances. Virginia Tech did the same thing following its appearance in the national championship football game.

But he's also quick to point out that not all students are influenced by gridiron greatness. Increasingly, OSU is competing for students with prestigious private schools in the Pacific Northwest, along with traditional academic heavyweights like Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley.

"We're seeing more students apply to OSU along with Stanford and Cal," Bontrager said. "In the past, they were less likely to consider OSU."

The addition of the University Honors College in 1995 has been a major factor in attracting high-achieving students to OSU, Bontrager said. "When we see the type of increases in applications that we've seen over the last three years, it's impossible to attribute it to one factor," Bontrager said. "It simply reflects the overall momentum being experienced by the university."

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Bob Bontrager, 541-737-4088