Community colleges are playing for keeps

Going for a slam dunk in launching and maintaining athletics program at community colleges

In San Antonio, Texas, men’s basketball teams from two higher ed institutions will soon play for a national title to conclude the “March Madness” tournament. The NCAA Division I championship will air in prime time on national television, with hundreds of media members on hand to chronicle the game.

Just over a week earlier and 700 miles north, in Hutchinson, Kansas, men’s basketball teams from two other schools will have played for a national title under a lot less fanfare. The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division I championship will have taken place at the Hutchinson Sports Arena, on the campus of Hutchinson Community College, which has hosted the game since 1952.

Athletics at the community college level bring far less pomp, circumstance, attention and money than their NCAA Division I counterparts. But that doesn’t mean they don’t play a significant role.

Sidebar: Fame, documented: East Mississippi Community College football

Officials at Hutchinson Community College should know. The Blue Dragons, who won the national title in men’s hoops last year and were the runner-up the year before, have posted an impressive 50-26 record in tournament games.

“While community colleges may not have the same levels of boosters, sponsorship and ticket sales that their four-year peers do, much of this is still a benefit we experience,” Hutchinson Community College President Carter File says. “In addition, our athletic programs enable us to build our student population and add to diversity on campus.”

Program inspiration

Many observers point to the “in addition” portion of File’s comments as the reason community colleges launch athletic programs. Television contracts and endorsement deals don’t find their way down to two-year schools, but fielding teams can still bring attractive advantages.

“It’s about three things,” says Chris Parker, executive director of the NJCAA. “Enrollment, No. 1; public relations, No. 2; and fundraising and development, No. 3.”

In 2015, Florida SouthWestern State College brought athletics back to campus after a hiatus of almost two decades. Volleyball, basketball, baseball and softball were the first to return. (Formerly Edison Junior College, the institution had changed its name the prior year to reflect the increasing number of bachelor’s degrees it was awarding, but it remains a school whose primary offering is two-year degrees.)

Florida SouthWestern President Jeffrey Allbritten may not have been the most obvious leader to bring back athletics.

“I don’t watch sports,” he says. “But I get the power of it.” That power, however, is not fiscal. “Is it a good ROI?” he asks. “I think there are many ways to measure that. If I’m doing it to create a profit center, no. But I’m very happy with our investment. Many things we do don’t add to our bottom line. It’s about, ‘Why are we here?’ ”

As NJCAA’s Parker notes, it isn’t only four-year institutions who are scrambling to fill seats in classrooms. Community colleges have become more aggressive in recruiting traditional-age undergraduates who may not have the resources to go straight from high school to a baccalaureate institution. Florida SouthWestern is no exception.

“Our institution has become more and more traditional, in the sense of full-timers, younger students and now residential housing,” Allbritten says. “All of the things that weren’t present when the [athletic] program was killed over 20 years ago are now present and vibrant.”

Full college experience

The more any institution can use athletics to provide a fuller collegiate experience, as opposed to just a classroom education, the greater the appeal.

“Because community college represents a great value proposition—high quality at a low cost—student-athletes can begin their college education with a need for only modest debt,” says File at Hutchinson Community College. “Often student-athletes encourage, either directly or indirectly, other students—such as friends, family or significant others—to attend the college as well.”

Community colleges typically don’t extend their reach very far when recruiting students—they are community colleges, after all. Athletic programs allow schools to make even stronger connections with surrounding residents.

Florida SouthWestern leaders focused on local ties while reviving its sports program. “We had a huge community task force that was studying the feasibility of it,” Allbritten says. “Ultimately it became one of those things that instead of being polarizing became galvanizing, and rather quickly—much faster than I ever hoped for.”

Revenue reflection

That’s not to say community college leaders don’t have their eyes on their balance sheets when they’re running their athletics programs. Revenue may not be a primary reason to field teams, but it does, of course, 
remain a consideration.

“Student athletes live in the college dorms, eat in the college cafeteria and purchase books through the college bookstore, all of which generate revenue for the college,” File says. “They also bring disposable income to campus, which they spend throughout the community.”

In addition, many community college athletes qualify for Pell Grants and federal student loans. These funds help pay college costs and living expenses—”all of which flow through the local economy to provide stimulus,” he adds.

Success depends on campus leaders knowing what they want athletic programs to achieve, says the NJCAA’s Parker. What matters is having a plan and sticking with it.

Maybe the philosophy is to compete for national championships. Or the idea is to grow enrollment or awareness—or to compete at an acceptable level in terms of post-season records. “As long as [community college leaders] know what philosophy they’re after, their program will be successful for long periods of time.”

Hutchinson’s teams have competed at a high level for decades. “The obvious wins and losses” are just one metric the college uses to evaluate athletics, File says. Other factors include academic success, and transfer and graduation rates. “We are committed to providing our student-athletes with quality leadership and academic resources that will leave each student-athlete better than we found them,” he adds.

The story is much the same at Florida SouthWestern. “The bottom line for us: It’s all about students,” says Allbritten. “Keeping them on campus, keeping them engaged.”

Thomas W. Durso is associate vice president for marketing and communications at Delaware Valley University in Pennsylvania.

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