Athletics and Enrollment Management: More Than a Game


College presidents feel relatively unprepared to manage both overall enrollment and athletics programs, according to recent research (“Pathways to the university presidency,” Selingo, Chheng and Clark, From our experience with hundreds of clients, we offer some insights for Presidents and other campus leaders on how athletics fit in with enrollment management, since deficits in these domains add risk and produce missed opportunities.  

Given its impact on enrollment, finances and reputation, today’s college leaders must understand the national athletics hierarchy (where do we fit in?) and the athletics organization on campus.  Even at DIII institutions where the role of athletics has less of a direct financial impact, athletes make up a distinct recruitment track, where the athletics department augments the admission office, and coaches add to the recruitment team. This parallel recruitment effort typically operates loosely across organization verticals.

Over the years, as enrollment operations have become more rule-oriented and dependent on automated systems like student search and CRM messaging, athletics departments have typically remained “old-fashioned” with a high-visit, high-touch, high-engagement style. A coach takes it personally when a prized recruit defects to another program.

These different styles and reporting arrangements pose management challenges.  Occasionally, coaches overreach their authority attempting to “land” a key player, causing some heated debate. Poor communication can leave the enrollment office unaware of the enrollment “targets” for athletes.  A coach’s unexpected departure can ruin the recruitment cycle for a key team.  And when an athletics director leaves for a new opportunity, the AD’s “personal” system exits just as quickly. Athletics can be a very productive enrollment resource, but its volatility can produce big enrollment swings.

Tough competition today, especially for smaller nonprofit colleges, makes adding a team or two a great organic enrollment growth tool.  Consider a college of 1,500 undergraduates enrolling 400 freshmen a year: adding one new team with a 20-person roster might offset other losses or produce 5% net, new student growth.  Since enrollment yield for recruited athletes typically exceeds that of non-athletes, building the sports admission “channel,” can improve overall enrollment results. (For an expanded discussion of college sports, see Reclaiming the Game, Bowen and Levin, Princeton University Press: 2003.)

Athletics participation also increases engagement, now and in the future among alumni. On occasion sports programs will create controversy and produce serious management problems. A President should have a clear lens on athletics to maximize potential and avoid risk. This provides even more reason for a President to have a firm handle on its potential as a positive force in enrollment and its place in the overall organization.

We suggest a President keep the following questions in mind:

  • How do the enrollment and athletics organizations align? Do the units share information, track transactions, exhibit good working relations? Do they have a “common mission” for enrollment?
  • Do the athletics coaches understand that incoming athletes figure importantly in the overall enrollment goals of your institution and that their numbers impact the entire university budget? Do they see themselves as partners with the Enrollment Management office?
  • Do administrators understand the role of athletics in enrollment? Does the Board? Does anyone feel that the athletics department should just be left alone to do its thing (this is a key danger sign)?
  • How much of your enrollment consists of athletes? Can the program grow? Will growth be cost effective? Has the athletics enrollment trend shown marked ups and downs? 
  • Does the varsity athletics program offer possibilities for related programs in club sports, academic programs (e.g., kinesiology, sports management etc.)? Can sports become a “destination” element for youth programs, fitness courses, community engagement, business partnerships?

The answers to these and similar questions will give you a view of the athletics-enrollment system operating at your college. Understanding its functioning will reveal its strengths and weakness and set a base for future efforts. If a staff member reports new student enrollment is “about on target,” ask what’s happening with athletes; the answer will likely be revealing.

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