Taking the Field: Intercollegiate Athletics on CIC Campuses

Athletics Report cover

​Intercollegiate athletics have been woven into the fabric of American higher education for more than 160 years. Big-time sports, tournaments, bowl games, and players going pro attract significant media attention, and more than 100 institutions attract crowds of 20,000 or more to football games. These experiences do not reflect reality for the vast majority of colleges, however. More than 2,000 two- and four-year institutions sponsored sports programs in 2016–2017. Yet, to paraphrase the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), most of these institutions train students to go pro in something other than sports.

Year to year, athletic programs at smaller colleges and universities are the source not of scandal or massive celebration, but rather of stability in student recruitment and retention. They have become a core aspect of independent colleges’ strategic positioning, and they can play a significant role in maintaining institutional health and viability. At many small private institutions, as many as one-third or even one-half of all undergraduates participate in intercollegiate sports. Indeed, because many prospective students see few differences across various institutions’ academic offerings, the availability of attractive athletic opportunities can be a differentiating factor in making their college choices.

Substantial anecdotal and case-study evidence indicates that skillfully deploying athletics can benefit institutional enrollment and finances, but few broad-based studies have examined the evolution of colleges’ athletics programming, particularly on independent campuses. What has changed most dramatically in those institutions’ athletics? What kinds of institutions have undertaken the most significant transformations in athletics? Although the NCAA and other national associations regularly produce helpful summary statistics, data in these reports tend to be highly aggregated across a variety of kinds of institutions. The purpose of this study is to take a first step toward understanding the strategic impact of athletic programs in independent higher education by examining institutions’ intercollegiate athletics offerings and participation in far more detail and focusing on questions of particular interest to CIC member institutions, which are predominantly small and medium-sized private colleges.

​​Council of Independent Colleges
By James C. Hearn, David Welch Suggs Jr., and Jennifer May-Trifiletti
October 2018