Coach as Enrollment Professional: A New College Athletics Recruiting Model

One of the most interesting responsibilities as a college president is to serve as a member of the president-led athletic conferences. With experience as a chair of conferences at the Division I and Division III levels, I can report that there are some striking differences between the divisions. But what stands out is how similar the concerns are in both groups.

Of course, there are the stand-alones in the group at the top of the heap — the handful of major conferences that also shape and control the policies of the NCAA. Most presidents either grumble to one another about the influence of this group or ignore them altogether. Regardless of the grumbling, what connects all groups is a commitment to the best ideals of sports at a collegiate level.

What separates the collegiate athletic divisions is the suspicion among many, often backed by zealous alumni, campus communities, and donors, that these “top of the heap” conferences act more as minor league professional sports camps.

This attitude diminishes the contributions that sports make to the lives of athletes, individuals who are also students, living in a residential community that includes innumerable other teachable moments — in and outside the classroom.

Enrollment is Most Lasting Contribution of College Sports

It is undeniable that sports play a critical role on a college campus:

  • College sports link alumni to their alma mater.
  • They establish and reinforce a higher education brand.
  • College sports play a significant role in shaping student residential life.

At the broad mid-section of American colleges and universities, however, sports’ most lasting contribution is to enrollment. This occurs on two levels.

First, college sports shape the perceptions of prospective students, including student athletes. Successful college programs in major sports like basketball and football offer an attractive incentive to attend the institution. Applicants imagine themselves in a 100,000-seat stadium with their classmates cheering a tournament-bound team. I can speak personally to the electric effect that a college “Cinderella” basketball team can have during March Madness. The impact translates into increased ticket sales, heightened inquiries from prospective students, and even a surge in t-shirt sales at the campus bookstore.

But even at the Division I level, only one in eight college athletics programs makes enough money to support itself. Yet that’s where an important distinction must be made.

At Division III colleges and universities, for example, sports can be a critical driver to enrollment. Student athletes are an essential building block in a freshman admissions class. They have an impact on gender balance, with its related Title IX issues, net tuition revenue, and retention and graduation rates.

These facts force enrollment deans and athletic directors into a sometimes unholy alliance where conflict or better détente between them may determine the institution’s financial bottom line, especially at small liberal arts colleges.

Athletic directors and coaches have an extremely difficult job. Their success, and continued employment, is often based disproportionately on their win/loss record. Their resumes are full of words like “winningest,” if that is in fact a usable word. But what shapes their experience with the president, CFO, and enrollment offices even more directly is how their teams contribute to a college’s statistics and, most importantly, to its financial bottom line.

Colleges, Universities Must Change Their View of Sports Programs

If colleges and universities are to survive the demographic, economic, cultural, and social shifting sands on which they operate, they must begin to look at athletics in a different kind of way. The Department of Athletics must be seen as a building block upon which an enrollment class is built, joining student athletes with academic major applicants, “over the transom” random applications, and community college transfers to construct a robust entering class.

It is no longer sufficient for an athletics department to live and die by the win/loss programs of its NCAA or NIAA programs. Colleges must reexamine athletics to determine how they can lower the expenses associated with running an athletic program.

A good starting point is adjusting the definition of what constitutes success for an athletic director and coaching staff. To do so, athletics must link much more explicitly to enrollment goals, specifically, the twin goals of lowering the discount rate and increasing net tuition revenue. This approach mandates retraining, insisting that college coaches be counseled jointly by their athletic directors and enrollment deans to become enrollment recruiters.

As recruiters, athletics must meet specific institutional goals that go well beyond recruiting a winning team. To do so, they will have to recruit differently, recruiting both good athletes who accept packages at or below the college’s discount rate as well as premier athletes for whom the discount rate might be higher.

The college must also incentivize athletes by allowing them a return of new revenues produced and additional capital commitments that improve their ability to recruit athletics.

Most of all, athletics must fall within the broader scope of a robust student residential life program and move away from the “stand alone” philosophy that has created the financial imbalance.

Athletics is a critical part of a good student residential life program. But it must also help pay the bills as colleges face new and harsh financial realities.
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