May 16 2014, 4:01pm CDT | by Forbes
I have a son who is finishing his junior year in high school, so I’m used to seeing college brochures in the mailbox, directed to him in the hope he’ll bug me into spending a lot of money to go to their school. Yes, even though colleges send emails and have all sorts of ways to connect to today’s modern, texting teen, plenty are still mailing brochures. Most of the time I just hand them to my son, who glances at them, and either stacks them on his dresser, never to be read again, or puts them in the recycle bin, never to be read again.
However, this recent arrival made me — and my son — do a double-take. It came from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. What made it unique is that it didn’t feature some furrowed brow covered by safety goggles looking quizzically or wondrously at a test tube, or sun-baked, not-at-all-stressed-out-and-Red-Bull-and-coffee-guzzling students lounging on a campus green. Instead, it was an invitation, with his name (not “Resident” or “Prospective Student”) to play college football for the mighty Augustana Vikings.
While both he and I were flattered, we also found it strange. We weren’t sure how four varsity games playing garbage time after his team was up by 40 points showed the flashes of talent necessary for a college football career.
Then again, I know thanks to previous coverage on this subject that schools such as Augustana at the NCAA Division III level — where athletic scholarships aren’t allowed — are using the lure of getting to call yourself a college athlete as a recruiting tool to build up not only their sports, but also their enrollment. I learned after seeing this brochure that Augustana wasn’t the first school to contact my son about playing football. He told me that he, and most of his teammates, also had received emails about the possibility of playing football at Millikin College in Decatur, Ill., another Division III school.
I love my son, and he’s worked very hard and gotten better, but I still was a little surprised that someone with a full two years of organized football under his belt, with little action during games, would be targeted by a college. So I contacted Augustana and asked, why are you recruiting my son to play football?
I was put in touch with W. Kent Barnds, the school’s executive vice president and its vice president for enrollment, communications and planning, and a former Division III athlete himself (track and field at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania). He told me he would address my personal question about my son, and then get into how offering the carrot of sports for people like my son fits into the school’s overall student recruitment philosophy.
“When I got your call, I contacted our football recruitment coordinator and asked, ‘Could you track down how we got [your son's] name?’” Barnds said. And here’s how it was tracked: “One thing we do systematically is we go out to coaches we know of, and we get recommendations about student-athletes we should contact. … Certainly we are hopeful that when we solicit partners at the high school level that they understand the academic rigors [of Augustana] and have a sense [the students] could play and have a passion to play at the Division III level.”
So, basically, my son’s high school football coach — one of “200 to 300″ Barnds said Augustana contacts — forwarded his information to Augustana. Instead of wondering whether it was a blanket recommendation of players that resulted in my son and most of his teammates getting a Milliken invitation, I’ll take the forwarding of his name to Augustana as the complement I’m sure it was intended.
After the initial brochure is sent, Barnds said, the football team looks at who sent back the attached information cards (to see who’s interested), and starts looking, as any program would, at specifics like height, weight, speed and ability (to see who can play). “We want to sponsor an athletic program that wins,” Barnds said. (Augustana football was 5-5 in 2013, including a win over Millikin.)
However, Augustana also wants to stand out among other, more well-known schools, and it knows the lure of college athletics can grab a high school student’s attention. “A 17-year-old is likely to get more excited about [sports] than geology, or business, or education,” Barnds said. “It adds a hook. It adds a conversation piece. That’s important.”
It’s especially important for a tuition-driven institution that most students had never heard of before they started looking at colleges, assuming they ever hear of the 2,500-student school by the Mississippi River.
Large schools know sports can be an effective means of spreading their name to the general public, but small schools know getting to play sports can be an effective means of boosting enrollment. For example, Augustana added men’s and women’s lacrosse in 2008-09, which Barnds credited with stabilizing enrollment when the economic recession started sending numbers downward. Many Division III schools in recent years have added football, which can result in an immediate enrollment jump of 80-100 students to fill out rosters, and millions of dollars — yes, millions — in new revenue annually through tuitions and fees. Barnds mentioned that some schools, such as his alma mater of Gettysburg though not his current employer, have the athletic department report directly to the vice president of enrollment, symbolizing the importance of sports as a strategy for overall student recruitment.
At other schools you can watch the football team, but at Augustana you can be on the football team. I mentioned two schools my son has visited — Ohio University and Illinois State. “He knows he won’t play for Frank Solich at Ohio University or for Illinois State.” (Side note: my son had a teammate this past season named an All-State linebacker who will play for Illinois State in the fall.)
“We are all about participation,” he said. “We recognize there are some student-athletes who will develop into players at the Division III level” who are not at the point in high school where they will draw interest from schools offering athletic scholarships.
This all sounded pretty interesting to me as a parent, especially because my son is interested in becoming a teacher and coach, so playing college football might good for his resume. Who knows, maybe he would develop into something at the Division III level. He started his career late, in sophomore football, as a 5-foot-10, 135-pound cornerback, and he’s ending his junior year as a 6-foot-1, 160-pound safety. Plus, on the scout team in practice, he has had the good fortune of working out against a strong group of receivers, including one committed to Nebraska, another who will play at South Dakota, and at least two others who are being recruited at the Football Bowl or Football Championship Series level, with passes being thrown by a quarterback being recruited by a few Big Ten schools.
Then I went onto the Augustana web site and looked at the pricetag, and my interest cooled considerably. Augustana’s base price, with tuition, food and housing, runs more than $40,000 a year. That’s a lot of money to call yourself a college football player. There’s also the probablity, given Division III schools do get athletes who actually were multiple-year starters in high school (like my son’s teammate, a three-year starter at linebacker who has committed to play with defending Division III champion Wisconsin-Whitewater in college), that we also would pay $40,000 a year for son my to sit on the bench. May/>/>
It’s especially a lot considering that one factor drawing him to Ohio and Illinois State (other than he wants a school that’s large but not overly so) is that he could join the campus Army ROTC program, which would then make the tuition cost zero (and at least at Ohio, if he maintained a 3.5 grade point average out of 4, housing would be covered, too.) Also, he’s done ROTC all through high school, so he’s very interested in the military not merely because it makes it easier for his parents to pay for his schooling, as well as for the two sisters and one brother behind him.
Augustana, well aware of this, has its coaches direct potential players from the get-go to a form on its website that will, based on the academic information entered, approximate the amount of merit-based scholarship money a prospective student could get, just so parents’ heart palpitations will calm down at least a little bit. Some Division III schools, though they can’t say tuition breaks are coming because of sports, find ways to make sure at least the better athletes get a little something extra.
Also, Augustana, and schools like it, are hoping that my son, and students like him, are open to changing their minds — and the minds of their parents.
“We’re dealing with 17- and 18-year-olds,” Barnds said. “Trying to predict what is important to them is nearly impossible.”
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