Going jock: Small colleges using sports to keep enrollment up

20 Aug 2013


FREMONT, Neb. — Brennan Azinger harbors no dreams of making it to the major leagues. In fact, if it weren’t for a friend at a small college in Nebraska putting in a good word for him with the baseball coach, he wouldn’t be playing beyond high school.

The coach invited the first baseman from Logan, Iowa, for a campus visit without having seen him play. This month, Azinger is starting his freshman year at Midland University as one of 70 players — yes, 70 — on the Warriors’ roster.

Strength in numbers equates to strength of school for Midland, where more than 600 of its nearly 1,100 students are on its 25 sports teams.

“Most kids coming here know they’re not going to get drafted,” said Azinger, his mom next to him after he signed up for classes. “They’re just playing for fun. They’re getting their education.”

And Midland is getting dollars.

Small colleges have long used the lure of partial athletic scholarships to draw students. With college costs rising, many small, private liberal arts schools are trying to stay relevant as prospective students turn to less-expensive community and online colleges.

Between 2006 and 2011, the number of schools where at least 33 percent of the students played a sport increased from 96 to 124. Derek Flynn, who specializes in enrollment issues for higher education consulting firm Noel-Levitz, has found that even the smallest athletic scholarships can entice new students.

“I think families like to shout from the mountain tops that their son or daughter earned a scholarship to play college sports, or that they are simply playing college sports,” Flynn wrote in an email.

“When we examine the data of campuses that offer small athletic scholarships, student behavior (enrollment rate) doesn’t seem to change dramatically whether the student is offered the smaller or larger amount,” he said. “It would suggest that it is about the recognition rather than the amount, although I am certain parents recognize the amount.”

Midland has added 11 varsity sports since 2010 and was among 18 four-year colleges nationally where more than half its students played a sport in 2011, the most recent year data was available from the federal Office of Postsecondary Education.

Next year, the Warriors will start men’s and women’s ice hockey programs, and men’s volleyball, swimming and diving and rugby are being considered after that as the school strives to reach an enrollment of 1,800.

“You look at other colleges that have had financial problems that are our size, the standard thing you do is you cut your extracurricular budget,” said Ben Sasse, who took over as Midland president in 2009. “We resolved at a board level at the very beginning that we would rebuild Midland as a special place where we were going to invest more in extracurricular, not less.”

The investment can pay off. Midland, according to government statistics, spent $5.5 million on athletic scholarships and operations in 2011-12 and got back $9.5 million in tuition and fees paid by athletes. Its enrollment has grown from a post-World War II low of 598 in 2009 to last fall’s record 1,097.

“Midland was in a real bad financial place,” Sasse recalled, “and it wasn’t clear that it was going to make it.”

That’s also the situation Walt Griffin found when he arrived as president of Limestone College in Gaffney, S.C., in 1992. Under Griffin, Limestone has gone from eight to 25 sports, and campus enrollment has grown from 275 to 1,050.

With a football program starting this year, 712 of Limestone students attending class on campus will play a sport. That’s 68 percent.

“In some quarters,” Griffin said, “there’s the feeling that you don’t want kids coming to the college when their main motivation is to play a sport, that it’s a less worthy motive than, ‘I’m coming because you have a world-class biology department.’”

Griffin said athletes often are the best students.

“If it’s participation in a sport that attracts them and they do well when they get here, I have no apologies if they get through and graduate and are useful citizens,” he said. “Why they came originally becomes somewhat immaterial.”

The costs of fielding teams, and being competitive, can lead NCAA Division I athletic programs to drop rather than add sports. But for NAIA programs and some in NCAA Division II, the math can work out in a school’s favor even though there is no significant revenue derived from ticket and merchandise sales or sponsorships.