Winning is always nice, but for small colleges like Tabor, it’s not just about winning football, volleyball or basketball games.
College administrators typically justify the investment in athletics in several ways.
One is by making the point that a well-rounded individual not only exercises her/his mind, but also strengthens his/her body. It’s part of developing the whole person.
Successful athletic programs also bring about improved school spirit.
There’s no doubt that school spirit was higher when Tabor won a couple of KCAC football championships or multiple basketball championships.
Like it or not, most newspaper space that Tabor and other colleges and universities receive is a result of athletics. The media, including radio and TV, give a much higher proportion of coverage to athletics than to academics.
It seems indisputable that Tabor has more students than it would if it did not offer the opportunity to participate in intercollegiate athletics, and therefore generate more tuition income.
There is an offsetting cost in the form of athletic scholarships that must be factored into the equation, but apparently Tabor administrators have found a formula for the amount of aid that they can award and still come out ahead.
Small colleges are not going to expand their athletic programs unless it makes good fiscal sense.
While some Tabor faculty may have grumbled about starting a bowling program, the facts probably showed that it was cost-effective to start the program to attract more students.
The college is ultimately a business. You can talk about vision, mission, foundational values and more, but Tabor has to pay its bills, pay competitive salaries and maintain a line of credit at the bank, just like every for-profit company in the county.
An article in Athletic Business demonstrates the role of sports in small-college enrollment. Adrian College doubled its enrollment and operating budget in six years through the construction of sports and recreation facilities.
Adrian’s athletics program was a bad one, and there was a fair amount of skepticism that sports could be the school’s savior.
President Jeffrey Docking said to the faculty, “Look, we’re going to be putting a lot of money into sports and co-curriculars, and it’s going to appear to you that academics doesn’t matter. It does matter, but first you’ve got to let me grow enrollment.”
When Docking came to Adrian College, enrollment was 840. Now, 60 percent of the student body of 1,670 is involved in the school’s resurgent athletics program.
“We don’t try to hide it; we don’t apologize for it,” Docking says. “We believe in sports; we believe sports is a great way to grow character. Their academic commitments come first, but we don’t apologize for wanting to win, either.
“We tell the kids, ‘Second place in the race for a job someday is not going to cut it.’
“There are all these ancillary benefits to bringing in athletes, because when they do start competing for jobs, they’re competitive people, and they can get in the ring and throw punches, and they don’t crumble under pressure. And if you read what CEOs want right now, number one on the list year after year is they want their people to be able to work within teams.
“Who knows better about working as part of a team than kids who have been on teams in college?”
So how do you get students to enroll at Tabor College?
The school used to rely heavily on its Mennonite Brethren roots, and to some extent, it still does. But Tabor can’t grow its enrollment solely on denominational loyalty.
While financial support from denominational churches is still important, Tabor cannot depend on local congregations for the financial support to survive.
Next, we’ll look at some options available to Tabor, and why athletics is the 800-pound gorilla.