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In cutting football, St. Cloud and Crookston deliver wake-up call to other Minnesota schools

photo of football on field
Many universities believe thriving athletic programs can attract students whether they play sports or not.

The news that St. Cloud State and University of Minnesota Crookston planned to drop their football programs for financial reasons hit close to home for Minnesota State Athletics Director Kevin Buisman. He and St. Cloud football coach Scott Underwood were high school best buddies in Marion, Iowa. And Buisman knows the factors that led St. Cloud to cut football and two other sports — declining enrollment and its troublesome corollary, declining revenue — could just as easily surface at his university in the coming years.

“If it can happen at St. Cloud, it can happen anywhere,” Buisman said. “I think it is a bit of a wakeup call for all of us.”

Higher education is in the midst of an enrollment crisis, with declining birth rates and other factors contributing to fewer high school graduates attending American colleges and universities. Nationally, more than 2.9 million fewer students enrolled in college last spring than in fall 2011, per the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

That’s particularly worrisome for athletic directors and coaches in NCAA Divisions II and III, where lucrative television rights fees are nonexistent, and athletic departments rely on institutional financial support to balance their budgets.

From 2010 to 2019 enrollment in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system fell 14%, with the seven universities down almost 9%, according to a St. Cloud Times analysis. (The University of Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth are not part of the system.) St. Cloud State enrollment dropped an alarming 25% percent, the largest in the system, falling from 21,938 in 2010 to 16,326 in 2019.

St. Cloud planned to lay off eight tenured faculty and four librarians before announcing the athletics cuts. Losing a Title IX lawsuit filed by former SCSU student-athletes (the school is appealing) factored somewhat into the athletics decision, which included adding men’s soccer.

Downward enrollment trend likely to continue

Future enrollment projections are not encouraging. In his 2018 book “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” Carleton College economics professor Nathan Grawe predicted a 15 percent drop nationwide in students attending college from 2025 to 2029, based on declining birth rates at the outset of the Great Recession (2008-11). He expects Minnesota schools to lose between 7.5% and 15%, with the entire West North Central area — including Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas — down 11.3%.

With fewer students providing tuition revenue, some institutions may go out of business. Moody’s Investors Service reported more than double the number of small U.S. colleges closing in 2015-17 over the previous decade. That may not be the worst of it.

“If you’re not attached to enrollment trends the last five years, you’re missing the boat,” Buisman said. “Because you’re so profoundly impacted by enrollment trends, in terms of student fees support and the overall financial health of the university, you have to be conscious about what’s going on with that.

“This whole northern tier of the country is experiencing declining enrollment. The pie is shrinking, and it just means we’re fighting each other for what’s there and what’s available to your institution.”

Buisman said this before leaving for Texas, where Saturday the 14-0 Mavericks football team faces West Florida (12-2) for the D2 national championship. “We like to say playing a national championship game on the ESPN networks is a 3½-hour commercial for Maverick athletics and Minnesota State University,” he said. “We’ll see how that translates into future fund-raising support.”

Steady enrollment at Minnesota State

Minnesota State has been fortunate. Enrollment at the Mankato-based school where the Minnesota Vikings used to train is holding steady at about 17,300, almost exactly the same as in 2010. It’s been a successful fall for Mavs athletics. Besides football, women’s soccer reached the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals, and men’s hockey spent five weeks at No. 1 in the USCHO.com Division 1 national poll before falling this week to No. 2.

Many universities believe thriving athletic programs can attract students whether they play sports or not. Minnesota State is one. Last year Buisman and school officials agreed to a novel proposal: For every four athletes recruited in baseball, women’s soccer, men’s & women’s track and field and swimming, the university funded one full scholarship to be divided among them. That added about 150 athletes to those rosters, all contributing a fair amount of tuition to the revenue pot.

“As we face these enrollment challenges, part of the solution might be growing athletics,” Buisman said. “As long as we’re generating positive public notoriety for the programs and the university, there’s a willingness to invest the right kind of resources into making this successful at a championship level.”

Farther north, the University of Minnesota Duluth faces $5.2 million in campuswide budget cuts for 2020 that almost certainly will impact athletics. UMD, which hasn’t had a balanced budget since 2011, plans to merge its School of Fine Arts and College of Liberal Arts as part of a 3% reduction in operational spending. A slight enrollment uptick since 2010 — 10,858 now, 10,725 then — only helps so much at an institution carrying $6.8 million in debt, per the Star Tribune.

“When our campus has navigated some financial challenges, including one more recently, we (in athletics) have to be part of those solutions,” said Bulldogs Athletic Director Josh Berlo. “We’ve been really focused on shifting the paradigm to generating as much external support as we can. There was a time where the athletic department was by and large funded by the university. That has changed quite a bit.”

While difficult to quantify, the profile of UMD’s two-time defending NCAA champion men’s hockey team may have contributed to an increase in applications the last two years. Former women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller’s protracted and recently settled discrimination lawsuit against the university brought a different kind of notoriety. Yet Berlo helped raise at least $1 million each of the last six years in support of athletics.

“When the university has to make decisions on allocations and they have to pull back the financial piece, we’re part of that,” Berlo said. “That percentage comes out of the institutional support we receive, and we’ve got to be able to navigate that and figure that out. Last year we finished a little bit in the black, which is great. We try to supplement the marketing effort with the visibility of our programs.”

Division III dynamics

In Division III, the absence of athletic scholarships reduces expenses significantly. But funding athletics, and everything else, remains an issue. Enrollment at Bethel University in Arden Hills, which belongs to the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, dropped from 4,860 to 4,387 in four years, prompting layoffs and a 10% reduction in its operating budget to counter a projected $11 million budget shortfall the next three years. How that impacts athletics is uncertain; Athletic Director Bob Bjorkland did not respond to an emailed interview request.

Enrollment is also down at Hamline University in St. Paul. Despite five consecutive years of record first-year student enrollment, Hamline’s overall enrollment of 3,404 is still significantly less than its high of 5,166 in 2009. That’s partly because of the 2016 merger of the law school with William Mitchell. Hamline Athletic Director Jason Verdugo said there are no plans to cut any of Hamline’s 20 intercollegiate sports because its administration believes athletics can drive enrollment. That’s why it added women’s lacrosse in 2017.

“I’d be lying to say in years past we haven’t looked at that, and potential trends,” he said. “We added lacrosse, which has been a good add for us. You’ll start to see that as a strategy.”

Yet as budgets tighten, Verdugo expects some schools to go the other way and offer fewer sports. That’s already happening in the MIAC. St. Mary’s in Winona, the conference’s smallest school (undergraduate enrollment: 1,089), recently dropped men’s and women’s swimming and men’s and women’s golf because of small rosters. St. Olaf College in Northfield, even with a stable enrollment of about 3,000, dropped wrestling, a sport the MIAC no longer sponsors, for the same reason.

“I think institutions will be faced with the dilemma of asking themselves, what can we continue to offer? What can we offer that will continue to attract students?” said St. Olaf Athletic Director Ryan Bowles, formerly an athletics administrator at Division 1 Maryland. “Many institutions rely on athletics for enrollment purposes. It certainly helps us here at St. Olaf, but we’re not reliant on athletics to hit our enrollment numbers. But I certainly worry about it.”

Verdugo believes football, even with shrinking youth participation numbers, will survive as an incentive to attract male students. Most coed MIAC schools have more women than men; Hamline’s student body is 63% women.

Still, shrinking enrollment suggests major changes ahead for college athletics, not all of them good.

“It would not surprise me if you see more schools move toward Division III, whether NAIA or potentially some D2 schools coming down, just because it’s still an opportunity for them to offer athletics maybe at a more affordable price and deliver that experience,” Verdugo said. “And you’ll have others that will say, ‘we’ll just consolidate our resources, we’re going to be good at these four sports or five sports’ or what have you. I can see that happening more often now than ever before.”

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by T.W. Day on 12/21/2019 - 09:20 am.

    It is somewhere between hard and impossible to feel sorry for the grossly overpaid coaches and, worse, athletic administrators when one of these expensive programs gets closed. There is nothing about a sports program that contributes to the educational quality of an institution. If it did, MIT would have one and Cal State Berkley would have a nationally rated team instead of being world leaders in STEM education. Fire a half-dozen coaches and hire a dozen great math teachers. Spend education money on education.

    • Submitted by Toni Bergner on 12/22/2019 - 04:24 pm.

      Grossly over paid coaches and athletic administrators ….. what are you talking about???? We are not talking about Division 1 colleges here. Please …. compare the MIAC and Northern Sun coach’s and athletic administrator’s salaries with professor’s salaries who may teach one or two classes. And in those classes a professor may have … 20-30 students while a football team has approximately 70-80 … or at St. Johns … 140-160? Let’s use St. Johns as an example 150 student athletes paying approximately $25,000 tuition/year vs 25 students paying that $25,000 tuition/year. You can do the math. And … take a look at the hours of work that each of those two groups of staff offer. One or two classes and then office hours for the rest of the work day …. come on …. that may be the problem with many of these college’s budget shortfalls.

      • Submitted by Tim McCarthy on 12/23/2019 - 01:20 pm.

        You are grossly understating the amount of work and students a professor has. One or two classes?? More like four or five. That’s at least one hundred students per semester.
        Now being a coach is simple. One hour of practice and then just doing office hours for the rest of the day…..sheesh….

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/23/2019 - 11:08 am.

      Berkley does have a good football team. They are only 6-5 this year, but have been very good in the recent past.

  2. Submitted by Iven Bay on 12/21/2019 - 10:29 am.

    Actually, with 33 varsity sports (16 men’s 15 women’s and 2 coed), MIT supports one of the broadest intercollegiate athletic programs in the world. Approximately 25% of undergraduates join a team during their time at MIT.

    MIT competes mainly against Division III New England colleges, but also routinely participates in regional and national championships.

    The Institute has earned 295 Academic All-America citations, the most for any D 3 program nationally.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Olson on 12/21/2019 - 12:14 pm.

    T.W. Day’s comments are perfect. The Univ. of Chicago scrapped athletics and left the Big 10 long ago–without a downside. It’s interesting to me that these schools justify their programs on the “belief” that athletics boosts enrollment. We’re not shown, however, where that “belief” is backed up with actual evidence. My guess is that they don’t seek that evidence because they’d rather not know the result. There’s comfort in ignorance.

  4. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 12/21/2019 - 06:36 pm.

    The best idea would be to unburden colleges of all sports.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/22/2019 - 07:33 pm.

      High schools, too.

      • Submitted by Gerry Anderson on 12/22/2019 - 08:39 pm.

        Another uninformed post. I played high school sport, me three boys to various degrees played also. It thought them the value of teamwork and by working hard together you can achieve things bigger than the individual effort.

        Plus the friends I made, the friends my sons made playing sports are still friends years after.

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/23/2019 - 05:34 pm.

          “Another uninformed post.” Physician, heal thy self.

          Parse my words carefully. Please, show me where I wrote that there is no value in youth sports.

          Inter-mural sports have not, on balance, been good for schools or colleges. Coaches have no business influencing teachers to give athletes passing grades, but we know it goes on. Why should text books & staff salary compete with new uniforms for the soccer team?

          Eden Prairie High has (I believe) around 2,500 or more students in grades 10 – 12. Yet only 20 are allowed to play varsity hockey. Even fewer play varsity basketball. If the youth hockey program participation doubles at the bantam level over the next few years, they won’t turn anyone away, they’ll just make more teams. But when those kids get to the upper grades, most of them won’t be able to play. Canada has produced some pretty good hockey players, without high school or college teams. (They do have college hockey, but it’s not where the best players are.)

          Chess club can teach whatever sports can. But no one is turned away, and life long friendships can be formed. Same for robotics club; those competitions can get tense. But the cost to the school is much lower.

          During varsity tryouts, if two players are deemed similarly skilled, the coach will typically cut the older kid in favor of the younger kid. If a senior kid gets cut, I guess her life long friend who made the team can tell her what she’s missing.

          If a given community values youth sports, they will support those sports. Even if it’s not through property taxes.

        • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/26/2019 - 11:43 am.

          There are other activities that teach the same values as sports.

          Students who participate in musical ensembles (band, orchestra, choir) or theater learn about teamwork (everyone has to be on task), responsibility (everyone needs to practice and show up prepared), respect for authority (the director’s word is law), how to rebound from failure (everyone will make mistakes but can learn not to be thrown off by them), and how to work together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

          Best of all, the arts are not a zero-sum game. Even in state and regional competitions, where there are winners and losers, students get to see fine performances and learn what is possible. In local terms, when a school puts on a good musical or theatrical event, everyone goes home happy, the students with a sense of accomplishment and the audience with the pleasure of having been entertained.

          I’ve heard the claim that some kids are willing to stay in school only because they can play sports.

          I am reminded of the 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams,” which followed two African-American youths who dreamed of basketball scholarships. One received a scholarship to an elite suburban Catholic high school but after he was injured and could not play, he lost interest in school, and his girlfriend berated him, saying that she stayed in school, even though she didn’t have basketball. The other youth won a scholarship–to a no-name community college in a small town in another state, where he and his teammates were the only people of color in town.

          I have to ask: If young people are motivated to attend school only because of sports, what is the school doing wrong that they are not engaged by anything else? Is their high school diploma going to be worth anything if they just squeak through?

  5. Submitted by Daniel Burbank on 12/21/2019 - 10:10 pm.

    The amount of money the University of Minnesota puts into the Big 10 sports like football and basketball has always seemed a bit murky to me. I’ve read that the head football coach is the highest paid University employee, making about 8x (?) the salary of the University president, but people have told me that alumni contributions and sports media revenue offsets most of this. Can someone knowledgeable explain this? If these kind of salaries are really coming out of the University budget, this seems pretty outrageous.

    • Submitted by Thomas Olson on 12/22/2019 - 07:09 pm.

      Murky for sure. Although the U of M has never claimed to be among the no more than a dozen schools nationally that actually profit from athletics, I understand, but have not seen proof that even their “loss” figures are distorted because the maintenance and repair of athletics facilities (big $’s) is attributed to the buildings and grounds budget–not athletics. In many states, the University’s basketball coach is the highest paid state employee. I’d like to see a response to my assertion that colleges provide no proof that an athletics program attracts students. “Ms. X, why did you choose Minnesota’s medical school over Johns Hopkins or Mayo?” “Why because Minnesota has a football team, of course.”

  6. Submitted by Toni Bergner on 12/22/2019 - 04:31 pm.

    The cost of athletic scholarships are mentioned in the article. It is my belief that there is very little, if any, cost of an athletic scholarship for a college. Let’s use 30 scholarship for a football team as an example ….. those 30 students (and I realize that many of those scholarships are split into partial scholarships) are obviously registered for classes. What is the cost of those 30 students being one more student in an English class, one more in a biology class, one more being in a economics class, etc.? There is no cost to the college for those students being one or two extra students in classes. The professor and costs of the class would be the same. If the student/athlete was not on scholarship they would be at some other college where a scholarship was offered. Someone may ask … how about the cost of room and board? I am making an assumption, but with declining enrollments, the dormitories are not at capacity and there are vacant rooms and so that student/athlete is filling a vacant dormitory room.

  7. Submitted by Toni Bergner on 12/22/2019 - 05:30 pm.

    Would someone please define exactly what is academic, In the days of early organized education, in one room school houses, it was referred to as the 3 R’s. And then the world became more complex and education evolved and now students are learning amazing things – trigonometry, calculus, physics, STEM, medicine, etc. And so education has evolved accordingly and necessarily. However, is it important for students to learn teamwork, competition, preparation intensity, to rebound from failure, determination, preparation with no guartees, humility, respect, etc., etc.? Are those qualities of value? I maintain that there is no better classroom than athletics for that learning laboratory. And, not just athletics, but other co-curricular activities teach that to varying degrees. The idea that academics only occurs in classrooms is now ridiculous. I would ask “Why do employment recruiters and business and industry leaders want to know about co-curricular involvement and recruit such individuals more highly? The answer is obvious …. it is important, educational and academic. The days of academia only being a factory for going to class and learning have passed. The world is a much larger and more complex world than that.

    • Submitted by Gerry Anderson on 12/22/2019 - 08:42 pm.

      Great answer. Those who have never been part of a team or organization bigger than themselves will never understand.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/26/2019 - 10:53 am.

        Oh please, have you ever seen a surgical team in action? Do think they all “learned” those skills in sports? These are basic human skills that cave men learned long before high school sports was invented. This glorification of sports is simply ridiculous.

        Look, you enjoy sports, you like watching it, great- whatever. But this idea that athletes are the pinnacle of human achievement with superior skills and character acquired nowhere else is nearly delusional.

        The truth is that athletes acquire very narrow skill sets that are almost useless outside of the games they play, and the “teamwork” required is no different than any other collective endeavor. We know from decades of studies that athletes are no more cooperative than anyone else, and to the extent that they are more competitive, those competitive traits actually interfere with social interactions and teamwork.

    • Submitted by Tim McCarthy on 12/23/2019 - 01:44 pm.

      “Why do employment recruiters and business and industry leaders want to know about co-curricular involvement and recruit such individuals more highly?”
      I don’t think that assertion is necessarily true. I’ve never asked or been asked about sports in an interview situation. Why would simply being involved in sports make a better employee? I certainly remember many bad teammates.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/24/2019 - 06:41 am.

      What about the kids that get cut from school teams? You’re telling me those kids will lose out, forever. This makes the current school-sports model a failure. How many kids were cut from the Andover boys hockey team this fall? Fifty? One hundred? I guess there is no way they will ever learn team work or perseverance.

      In reality, it’s laughable & short sighted, the idea that school based sports is the only way to learn these values.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/25/2019 - 11:44 am.

    The “value” of organized sports has been exaggerated for decades. The idea that no one learns how to work with others, or cooperate, or leadership and “fair play” without sports involvement has always been a myth. How do you suppose the Roman’s and Greeks figured out how to have such amazing armies without the benefit of football programs and high school sports? How did the Egyptian’s get those pyramids built without minor league baseball?

    The documented fact is that the longer kids stay in organized sports the more likely they are to sanction cheating, see themselves in competition with their team mates, and view their sports careers as personal resume building, rather than character building.

    And then there’s the money and the resources that sport siphons from more legitimate social and educational endeavors. From billion dollar stadiums to grossly overpaid coaches and athletes, we’re drawing serious cash and other resources out of our budgets so that people can play games and watch people play games.

    Sports is an unsustainable bubble, and all bubbles eventually pop. I’m not saying sports should disappear completely from society, but to the extent that it drops down several notches and finds itself in a more rational priority, that’s a good thing.

    And you’ll notice the “crises” here primarily stems for the ultimate fact that the collapse of school football (and sports) is a crises for pro team owners. Yet another public subsidy for pro-sports is our incredibly expensive publicly financed training ground that these owners ultimately rely on to populate their teams. Yet I never see any sports enthusiasts suggest that the pro leagues start picking up the tab for all these cash starved sport programs?

  9. Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/26/2019 - 08:44 pm.

    Just cut football. The liability from the brain injuries is going to make it too expensive for all but the biggest colleges. Its a dying sport.

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