Investing in DIII athletics doesn’t guarantee higher enrollment, analysis finds

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Dive Brief:

  • Investing in Division III athletics programs may not yield enrollment growth for their colleges, a recent Urban Institute analysis shows.
  • The left-leaning think tank studied 325 DIII colleges. It looked at institutions’ headcounts, as well as the number of varsity sports and full-time head coach positions they created between 2004 and 2020.
  • The Urban Institute found athletic investments had little correlation with enrollment changes. Of the two-thirds of colleges that added varsity sports or head coaches, less than half saw enrollment increases. And of the 38% of institutions that did not invest in athletics, more than half experienced enrollment growth, the think tank found.

Dive Insight:

Small private colleges — which include some in DIII — have increasingly tried to drive enrollment increases through athletics.

The basic thinking is better sports options would attract students who would not otherwise consider an institution. Coaches — who at a small institution are often part time or doing multiple jobs — tend to serve as pseudo recruiters in DIII.

In some cases, these bets can pay off big. As the Urban Institute noted, Adrian College, a private liberal arts institution in Michigan, doubled its enrollment after instituting more than 30 new teams since 2005.

And players at small privates often pay full tuition, making athletic recruiting particularly lucrative, the Urban Institute said. DIII athletes also tend to have higher first-year retention and graduation rates than their peers, the organization said.

However, returns are not guaranteed, as the think tank stressed. And colleges that put too much money and staffing into athletics may strain their already precarious finances.

An athletics focus can also alter a campus’ culture or lower academic standards. For example, New College of Florida, a public college, when it massively grew its athletics profile this year, resulting in a drop in average GPA and entrance exam scores.

The Urban Institute tracked college headcounts one, two, three and five years after athletics investments and found “little statistical relationship between adding more sports or full-time coaches and changes in enrollment.”

In fact, the institute said that “any effects on enrollment are diminished” because colleges are simultaneously trying multiple approaches to draw in students, such as lowering tuition.

“Ultimately, these findings indicate that investing in athletics is not a silver bullet for small, private colleges looking to boost enrollment, though it’s clear that athletes and athletics are important to the survival of many Division III schools,” the Urban Institute said.

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