September 8

Strengthening Enrollment through College Athletics


by | Sep 8, 2022 | Featured, Strategies, Podcast

It’s no secret that college athletics can play a role in deciding where a student will go to college. 

All across the country, universities use different marketing strategies based on their athletic programs to help increase their enrollment.

But simply having a sports program doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting the most out of your college athletics in terms of attracting new students. 

Good news is that there is an organization dedicated to helping private colleges and universities optimize their sports departments to strengthen or increase their enrollment numbers. 

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) is made up of roughly 250 member colleges and universities across the country, primarily in the Midwest, southeast and southwest.

Up to 80 percent of the member schools are private institutions.

On average, member schools have between 1,800 to 2,000 students. 

Most member schools rely heavily on college athletics to drive enrollment, as well as to comprise a big part of the campus life.

Among other services, the NAIA supports their members in these efforts by running championships and making sure student athletes are eligible to compete.

NAIA President and CEO Jim Carr gives us some incredible tips on boosting student recruitment through college athletics.Jim Carr, the President and CEO of the NAIA, joined us on The Higher Ed Marketer podcast to discuss how college athletics programs can have a positive impact on your university.

He also showed us how, if marketed correctly, these programs can help drive your university’s enrollment.  

Using Data-Informed Decisions in College Athletics

One thing I really like about the NAIA is that they are helping their members share data with each other on what is working or not working in their athletics programs.

In the private education space, it’s easy to think that you’re alone. But having this kind of input is so valuable to seeing the bigger picture.

We talk at every leadership meeting about [how college athletics impact enrollment], and we’ve even created a major initiative called “Return on Athletics.” 

[This initiative] brings in a lot of data and assists our schools to not only understand the potential opportunities on their own campus, but to also compare that with the 250 other institutions around the country and make some decisions based on those data.

Sharing data between these private institutions in the NAIA helps keep them focused on the things that really matter when it comes to boosting enrollment.

Focusing on What Matters: Retention

One of the primary focuses of the NAIA’s research has been in the area of how athletics helps schools retain students.

We’ve been really focusing on retention and trying to analyze things like what size of a roster in various sports is kind of the sweet spot for retention. 

If it gets too large, does that make retention go down? And vice versa? If your [roster is] too small, what’s the impact there in terms of enrollment? [We’re also looking into] the impact of financial aid or competitive success – how do those impact the ability to attract student athletes to your campus? 

At a minimum, [these data sets] allow leaders on campuses to take a step back and say, “Oh, maybe we thought about the appropriate roster size for us, but we didn’t have any data to help support that decision.”

Getting Enrollment and Athletics to Work Together 

Historically, colleges and universities have seen athletics as something completely separate from enrollment. 

But a lot more schools are partnering with the athletics department, admissions, enrollment, and to a degree, student life, to improve retention by making sure that they’re talking with one another.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for smaller private schools to rely on the athletic directors to recruit up to 40 percent or more to fill their classes.

[As far as] retaining students at a high percentage, those schools [doing that] tend to have great integration between the admissions and the enrollment side of the house and athletics. 

It can be structured in many different ways. Some even embed their coaches in the enrollment area just to have cross functional integration in some way. There are a lot of ways to do it. 

Getting different teams across departments to work together boosts enrollment by creating a momentum that one team simply can’t produce on their own.

Using College Athletics to Retain First-Gen Students

Something in private education that I’m passionate about is finding ways to attract and retain first-generation students or students from underrepresented demographic groups

In our conversation with Jim, he shared how college athletics can help retain these valuable young students even when they may not know how to navigate the college experience.

Everyone wants to belong somewhere, right? 

As a first gen student, [the college experience] is not something that’s been talked about in your family as you were growing up. It’s all brand new to you. 

As you get to the campus, having kind of a built-in family or a built-in cohort [as is the case with college athletics], it certainly helps [retain students].

Our coaches want to win, and they want to compete, but they’re [really here] to help young people grow and go on to be successful in life. A number of our coaches pay special attention to those who don’t have families with any college experience like that. 

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Jim Carr to get even more insights into:

  • How athletics can have a positive effect on campus broadly 
  • How marketing athletics properly can help drive a school’s enrollment
  • Why integrating athletics and enrollment together is a recipe for success

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