Enrollment Management, Higher Education

7 Observations in Recruiting the Student-Athlete Today

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Athletics is such a significant part of the lifestyle and culture of so many young men and women today, particularly in smaller rural communities. It’s a component of their social life. It should be of no surprise that many student-athletes in high school consider continuing their athletic experience into college, at least early in exploring college options. It may very well be a comfort thing. It’s what they know. And, depending on the school – and obviously the individual – the athletic accomplishments may suggest that college athletics is a real possibility for young Johnny.

Many colleges and universities have taken advantage of this culture over the last 15-20 years increasing the number of athletic programs on college campuses and offering junior varsity and even freshman programs. While larger universities have traditionally offered intramurals, smaller colleges may simply not have the population to manage that on their own campus, but they could increase opportunities and competition with other colleges. More importantly for many colleges, the increase in athletic programs is a way to increase enrollment, something desperately needed by many colleges both then and now. It makes sense financially for many and has proven to be quite successful.

So, how has this impacted the way admission offices recruit and interact with prospective students? First, let me take you back about 20 years to my experience being recruited as a student-athlete. Of course, we have to take into consideration that the internet was only known to Al Gore (that’s a joke folks), email wasn’t available, cell phones didn’t exist in mainstream population, and it was much more difficult to share video. But, the Pony Express still delivered out of Wahoo, Nebraska at that time delivering VHS tapes to my potential college suitors. Ah, the glory days of yesteryear.

But I digress.  Connecting with high school student-athletes is different. I stop short of saying it is any easier today just because we have the technology of cell phones, email, social media, and more. But with all that said, I reflect on my experience and share some observations.

  1. More young men and women today believe they can play college ball. Maybe this this is a simple result of colleges providing more opportunities. But, I also believe that the effort to use sports as enrollment has sent the message to many that they can play college ball even when many of them will never see a minute of varsity time.
  2. Personal and sustained contacts through the recruiting process still matter. In fact, I still contend that snail mail has grown in impact since email and social media took over. My senior year I received a personal note of some kind from my college of choice almost every other week. Students still like the personal connection, particularly with schools and coaches they like.
  3. Athletic scholarships are readily available! I tell many high school athletes, if you want to play, it’s likely that someone will give you a scholarship. The amount of that scholarship, however, can vary greatly.
  4. Entitlement vs. Opportunity. I say this with some trepidation. But, my experiences have increasingly witnessed parents negotiating – serving as an agent – with colleges rather than being thankful for the opportunity.
  5. Evaluating real talent is easier. Technology has had a tremendous impact. HUDL for example has put my freshman son’s highlights in the hands of family, friends, and ultimately college coaches. But also, the increased opportunities at colleges, suggest to student-athletes that they can and should dream bigger rather than limiting their opportunities to only what they know geographically due to what they get in the mail or see on tv.
  6. Smaller colleges and universities have a value proposition they may not have had previously. Due to increased opportunities, many young men and women see the significant value in the smaller college as a place to continue playing something they love. Consider the addition of men’s volleyball and women’s wrestling at schools in the Midwest.  Would a student have considered such schools if not for athletics? For some, it comes down to the decision of playing. I’ll go to XYZ College if I want to keep playing and I’ll go to ABC University if I choose to give it up. Personally, I don’t think it should be this way but I understand the mindset.
  7. Admissions offices are greater extensions of athletic recruiting. It’s more of a partnership today to meet common goals. I remember when coaches would forbid admission offices from contacting certain recruits. Today, coaches seek and often need the support of admissions to maintain the connection with a larger number of potential recruits. I’m sure this isn’t always the case, but I’ve seen it evolve at my institutions.

Bottom line is that things have changed. I’d argue it’s a buyers market for student-athletes right now at smaller NAIA and DIII colleges and universities. That being said, we all know that not everyone can play in college. College athletics is just like high school in that winning is the objective and players who contribute best to the team and winning will be on the floor, field, or competition space. Fortunately, students get to choose how important the opportunity to continue is to them. But, they also need to be prepared for when their number doesn’t get called. Fit is important!  Hopefully, they’ve picked the college in which they can transition smoothly to experiences that will translate into a great career outside of athletics. So, for my shameless plug….I believe we do this very well at Doane College.  We have many fine students who thought they would play college sports only to find that life after organized sports can be just as rewarding as the experiences on the court.  But, like most college athletic programs, we also anxiously await all football players with a 4.2 40 speed and a 42 inch vertical leap….who meet our admittance requirements of course.

For me, like many basketball players before me, I dreamed of playing in the NBA. Unlike my days in high school, I had no recruiters looking for my services after my college career. Looks like old man’s noonball for me!  Until next time…

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