Tracking a Move Away From Division I

Enrollment and financial giving is up since Birmingham-Southern College moved out of the NCAA's top competitive division.
September 5, 2007

Last spring, when Birmingham-Southern College announced plans to voluntarily move out of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's top competitive division, G. David Pollick, the college's president, knew he would catch flak from certain coaches, athletes, boosters and sports columnists.

More than a year later, Pollick has data to help back up the decision. The liberal arts college is welcoming the largest incoming class in its history, receiving a greater portion of the tuition money it charges and seeing gains in fund raising.

Last fall's incoming class, assembled before the move from Division I to III was announced, included 326 students for a total undergraduate enrollment of 1,207. This year, there are 506 new students (including the record 452 freshman) and projected overall enrollment of 1,318.

Pollick said the new class includes a greater number of National Merit Scholars than the previous year, and the two classes are roughly equal in terms of high school grades and college entrance scores. Largely because of the addition of a football team -- which plays its first game on Thursday -- the gender ratio of the new class has seesawed from 64/36 female to 60/40 male. In future years, the college will not need to devote admissions slots to filling out an entire football squad.

The discount rate for the freshman class has dropped from 64 to 53 percent, while for all new students it is down to 50 percent.

And financial giving, often a concern for presidents considering a move that might upset athletic boosters, has more than kept pace. Pollick said the fund raising goal was $16 million in new gifts and pledges, and the college received $16.7 million, the majority of which came from living alumni and friends, and went toward scholarship support. The unrestricted giving from alumni the past two fiscal years were the second and third highest totals in the last decade, according to the president. And gifts to the Parents' Fund, made by parents of current students, set all-time records in each of the past two years, growing by 152 percent.

“When we were making the case that this was the appropriate action, both financially and philosophically, we said all of this would happen," Pollick said. "It's certainly an affirmation."

Birmingham-Southern joined Division I of the NCAA in 1999, hoping to grow enrollment and financial giving. But Pollick and others determined that the institution no longer should devote to athletics the kind of resources needed to compete at that level. The president said last year that about $6.6 million of the college’s $42 million budget went toward athletics -- and with the move, he expected annual savings of $2 million. He said last week that since the college's last year in Division I it had already improved annual revenue generation by $4.75 million.

Many colleges set their sights on moving up to Division I, but few in the past 25 have moved from the top division to Division III, where no athletic scholarships are given. As a Division I institution, the college awarded 116 athletic scholarships, 44 of them full scholarships, compared with one full academic scholarship -- an imbalance that bothered Pollick.

Nearly 50 athletes transferred between summer and fall of 2006. Some were on full scholarship and have been replaced by Division III athletes, which Pollick said will allow the college to restructure its financial aid operations. (The college said it is honoring scholarships to athletes who entered during the Division I days.)

While Birmingham-Southern plans to spend less of its overall budget on athletics, it will almost double the number of spots for athletes (from 200 to roughly 400 once the final athletes who entered during the Division I period leave.)

The number of sports has increased from 14 to 21, with men's basketball and baseball, which didn't compete last year, starting up again this season.

"Students who wanted to play sports but couldn't or didn't want to play in Division I had to leave the state before," Pollick said. "We've offered them a chance to stay in Alabama. And these are kids that can say realistically we have a chance to win national championships."

Still, some remain upset. Pollick said those who don't believe in the new philosophy of the athletics program won't give. Added Kyndall Waters, an assistant athletics director in charge of the football booster club: "There will always be people who will be upset about the change, but the sentiment I'm hearing is that we've largely moved on."

Randy Law, an assistant professor of history and faculty athletic representative to the NCAA, said he's always viewed the opposition as a vocal minority of athletes and coaches. He said most faculty and non-athlete students have backed the move throughout and are pleased to see the new data.

"I'm personally thrilled with where we are now on philosophical grounds and in terms of financial circumstances," Law said. "It was clear that there was a black hole in our annual budget that was sucking up dollars that the school needed across the board.

"There was never going to be a good time to move to Division III, because there always would be students who felt like they're being abandoned -- even though the president went out of his way to say no one would be left without financial aid."

Because there are more spots for varsity athletes now, Law said, the college will likely see an improved fan base with friends and family coming to events. And more athletes graduating also means a larger pool of alumni who played sports and are willing to give. It will take years, many say, to tell how the program fares in terms of both giving and competitiveness.

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