How USC’s Final Four runs fueled a record-shattering freshman class

USC's freshman class is the largest a long shot!

What's it like being part of a class so large, the University of South Carolina had to lease blocks of rooms in two apartment complexes?
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What's it like being part of a class so large, the University of South Carolina had to lease blocks of rooms in two apartment complexes?

Jake Hoppa happened to be touring the University of South Carolina in March when its downtown campus erupted in celebration of the men’s basketball team’s first trip to the Final Four.

The 18-year-old from Rochester, N.Y., just had decided to attend USC. But the scene in Columbia — students splashing in fountains on campus and in Five Points — reinforced the future sport management major’s choice.

“I watched the Baylor game from my hotel room,” Hoppa said. “You could actually hear the excitement coming from Five Points. It was just wild, the atmosphere here then. Just amazing. I wanted to get out of high school by that point and just come to college.”

That excitement drew more than Hoppa.

Thanks, in part, to a so-called “basketball bounce,” USC welcomed a record-shattering freshman class to campus Tuesday.

The 5,800 freshmen are about 500 more than USC had expected – so many that the school had to add more than 100 extra sessions of classes, hire more professors and work out arrangements with two off-campus apartment complexes to house them all.

“This is the most volatile year we’ve had in terms of our deposit rate,” said USC Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Scott Verzyl, who witnessed a similar bounce while working at Georgia Tech after the Yellow Jackets’ 1990 football national championship.

Tipping the scales

It’s a good problem to have, USC says.

For years, the school has tried to grow gradually, aiming to add 100 more students to each incoming class until USC reaches 6,000 freshmen.

This year, USC was ready for a 5,300-freshmen haul.

But in March and early April, around the time many high school seniors were finalizing their college choices, USC’s men and women’s basketball teams were becoming national darlings as they made sensational March Madness runs.

The Gamecocks men pulled off improbable upsets of Duke, then Baylor and then Florida to reach the Final Four in early April. The women stormed through the tournament for their first national championship that same weekend.

For undecided high school seniors with a USC acceptance in hand, the excitement surrounding the historic Final Four runs “could have tipped the scales,” USC’s Verzyl said.

The ensuing “bounce” bucked a 10-year trend nationally of declining enrollment “yield” – the percentage of students who are accepted that ultimately enroll.

About a third of all students accepted to USC will attend this fall, up roughly 3 percentage points from last year, Verzyl said.

On campus Tuesday, several freshmen moving into their dorms said the Gamecocks’ basketball success reinforced their college pick.

“It was really cool,” said Nicholas Alfano, a freshman marketing major from Richmond, Va. “It got me used to the student atmosphere and how the kids react to the sports teams. It was very positive and an exciting thing for me to see.”

‘It was a scramble’

But USC needed a place to put the freshmen, who are required to live on campus. There are fewer than 7,000 beds on campus, and upperclassmen stay in many of them.

This summer, the school entered deals with nearby off-campus apartment complexes to host the overflow students.

USC is paying $7.6 million this year to lease 530 beds at Park Place, entering its second year at Huger and Blossom streets, and 250 beds at Aspyre, at the corner of Assembly and Whaley streets.

All but 11 of those beds have been filled, and students living there are considered to be living on-campus.

Over the summer, USC expanded its shuttle routes to include stops at those complexes. It also will provide resident mentors who will live at the complexes, supervising the students and organizing community events.

“We’re treating it like an extension of our campus,” Verzyl said. “They’re going to be on meal plans, everything like that.”

USC also had to add classes to accommodate the overflow. It added 118 new sections for classes in English, foreign languages, biology chemistry and math. The College of Arts and Sciences alone hired 20 new instructors to teach its new sections.

“It was a scramble on the part of the faculty to get all of the courses together, but they did it,” Verzyl said.

Others schools have struggled to face similar challenges. Earlier this summer, the University of California-Irvine revoked more than 500 admissions offers after realizing about 800 more freshmen than expected were coming.

“We made a commitment to the students when we offered them a spot in our class, and we want to honor that commitment,” Verzyl said. “We just felt like it was a moral obligation.”

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks

USC’s freshmen enrollment

A so-called “basketball bounce” — after the Gamecocks’ 2017 Final Four runs — is behind a record-breaking freshman class at the University of South Carolina. How freshmen enrollment this year compares to previous years.

2017: Between 5,800-5,900 (1)

2016: 5,105

2015: 5,156

2014: 4,943

2013: 5,003

(1) Still unofficial

SOURCE: University of South Carolina