The questions are often bandied about in the world of higher education: Do athletics matter in the grand scheme of a university? Do winning sports programs help fundraising? Do they bring in more students?

Winona State University officials think so. But they can't definitively prove it.

One thing that they do know is that a three-year run in which the school's men's basketball team has gone 105-6 overall, reached the national championship game three times and won a pair of Division II national championships has increased the school's visibility and allowed it to reconnect with many alumni.

"In a lot of ways, people always thought of Winona State as this little, small public school," said Mike Swenson, Winona State's director of alumni relations. "People weren't embarrassed to say they graduated from Winona State, but they were quiet about it. Over the past couple of years, people who weren't in touch with the university are getting in touch."

In addition to expanding their e-mail alumni database by about 25 percent, school officials said the victories have brought many people to campus who didn't have a natural connection.

Jim Schmidt, Winona State's vice president for advancement, said fundraising for 2007 was up 12 percent from 2006.

"I wouldn't say that it is about basketball, but I think it gives people a reason to think about Winona State," Schmidt said. "It has gotten people interested in the institution."

A recent study looked at the impact that success in college sports has on the quantity and quality of applicants at Division I schools. Looking at 20 years of data, the study found that on-the-field victories translate into more applicants and give a school an opportunity to grow, raise its academic profile or both.

It's unclear whether success in a high-profile Division II sport will do the same.

But Tim Selgo, athletic director at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, has seen what happened after his school won four Division II football championships since 2002.

"Our name recognition throughout our region has improved greatly as well as nationally," he said. "I think people know more about Grand Valley than they did before. I really believe it does have an impact on the image of your school."

Carl Stange, Winona's admissions director, said next spring will be the true indicator as to whether interest in the school has risen.

Before the Warriors won their second title last weekend, Stange had already closed freshman admission for next fall, the only four-year school in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system to have done so.

The school had about 5,900 applicants and about 4,300 had been admitted, an increase in both categories compared with the previous year.

"Can I say that actually winning the event has attributed to our enrollment? I don't know," Stange said. "There are no hard numbers on that. The key thing I have noticed is the national attention we are receiving."

Next year will be a good test, because the number of students in the high school class of 2009 in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest is less than it has been in recent years.

While the exact results are difficult to quantify, Winona officials think winning does help a school.

"Things like basketball records get people to take a look at you," Schmidt said. "Very few people will come here just because we won, but it does get people to say, 'Winona -- I ought to think about that.'"

Jeff Shelman • 612-673-7478