In the competitive arena of higher education, local universities are using extracurricular activities like athletics to broaden their market areas and attract students from across the country.
This is a relatively new growth model that has been embraced by some universities but not by others. One of the true believers is Lindenwood University in Belleville, Ill., and St. Charles, Mo.
“It depends on how the university views athletics,” said Scott Spinner, director of Intercollegiate Athletics at Lindenwood’s Belleville campus. “Do they view it as an investment or as an expense? Lindenwood views it as an investment and, because they do, we receive a major return on that investment. But, if you view it as an expense and you don’t go out and are aggressive and really work to make the athletic program as good as it can be, you can’t use athletics to grow an institution.”
Spinner said that he was an assistant basketball coach at Fontbonne University in St. Louis when Jerry Bladdick was lured away from Fontbonne to head up Lindenwood’s Belleville campus. Soon thereafter, Bladdick called Spinner and asked him to come over to talk about sports. By the end of the conversation, Bladdick offered him a job.
“I took it because he assured me that Lindenwood was committed to it,” Spinner said. “At the time I was a little bit nervous because there were only 56 students in the school. It was kind of a career gamble but he assured me that Lindenwood was committed to it. “I saw the model at their St. Charles campus so the model had already been proven. Knowing that we were going to use the same exact model over here and grow the campus the same way they grew their campus, I knew it would be successful.”
That was in the fall semester of 2009 when Lindenwood had just 56 students enrolled in the day program in Belleville. At that time, they offered one sport — men’s soccer. Now, they have 33 sports with plans to add six more next season.
Daytime enrollment at Lindenwood’s Belleville campus topped 1,000 last semester and Spinner said he thinks that it will grow to more than 2,000 within three years.
“The vision of our president, Dr. Evans, and our Belleville campus president, Dr. Bladdick was to grow this campus using athletics as a tool to grow it,” Spinner said. “Dr. Evans has said many times to me that the fastest way to build up a campus to a critical mass is by using athletics.”
McKendree University is a believer in the growth model as well, according to vice president for Admission and Financial Aid Chris Hall. But, Hall says, he wouldn’t limit it to just athletics.
“We created a debate team that draws students to the university from coast to coast,” Hall said. “We have a show choir that’s beginning next year and a marching band. They all have the same sort of effect which is expanding our footprint and attracting students whom we might not have reached without these programs.”
Hall said that each year the leadership team at McKendree looks at various sports and extracurricular activities that would fit their model and would enhance the student experience. They pay close attention to student interests and seek out student input.
“When you start to hear the same thing over and over again, you say, ‘maybe this is something we should look into,’” said Hall. “President Jim Dennis has always been very open to adding activities on campus. He has said, ‘if there is student interest; students want something; and we can provide it, why wouldn’t we.’
McKendree now has students from 38 states and 26 countries. What happens, according to Hall, is a word-of-mouth campaign that continually builds upon itself.
“What tends to happen,” said Hall, is if you get one student from California, the next year you see a second, a third and a fourth. They might be a relative; they might be a sibling; or, they might be a friend. The student comes; has a good experience and they tell their friends and relatives and everybody back home. Their parents are happy and they tell people that their son or daughter is at McKendree and they love it. It’s sort of a slow process but it builds on itself.”
Likewise, Lindenwood is attracting students from across the country but there’s another component, Spinner says, than just offering the athletic programs. Recruiting is key, he says.
“We’re very conscious about making sure we get quality coaches but also quality recruiters,” Spinner said. “We make sure our coaching candidates know how to recruit during the interview process. That has been a real key in hiring coaches — to make sure that they can meet their recruitment goals as well as meet the competitive goals of the program.”
Hall agreed. He said that, for example, McKendree has recently instituted a women’s wrestling program. Women’s wrestling isn’t even a sanctioned sport in the Midwest and high schools don’t generally have girls’ wrestling teams, but it’s popular in California. McKendree went out and hired a coach with a reputation in the sport and attracted nearly the entire women’s wrestling team from California.
“There’s definitely a positive impact from having extracurriculars on the campus,” Hall said. “Most of our students are involved in some activity. That could be anything from speech to debate to marching band to tennis or football. It could be anything. But, most of them come with the intent to participate in some activity of some sort on campus.”