Split Division III? Proceed With Caution

The colleges considering leaving the NCAA’s nonscholarship competitive level risk hurting their institutions and turning off students, W. Kent Barnds writes.


December 13, 2007

Whenever kids get together for pick-up games they always run the risk of someone getting upset and shouting, “I’m gonna take my ball and go home!” And if the sore loser makes good on the threat, everybody loses.

The stakes are similar in the debate over the future of athletics in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division III. None of the 400-plus D-III colleges offers athletics scholarships, but to some it seems that’s about all we have in common. With enrollments ranging from fewer than 2,000 to more than 10,000, smaller schools regularly compete against institutions five times their size. And with large schools from state systems competing against private colleges, the difference in tuition prices can be equally vast. Adding to the rift are philosophical differences that lead some schools to endorse red-shirting and out-of-season practices, while others encourage specialization at the expense of multi-sport athletes.

The differences in cost, enrollment and institutional priorities have created serious issues of competitive imbalance within D-III, and this has presidents and athletics directors across the division contemplating a split.

The topic has appeared on the agendas of several athletics conferences this fall, and will be teed up again in membership discussion groups at the NCAA’s 2008 convention in Nashville. A possible vote on membership may be a year away, but the time to consider these important questions is now. As someone who is focused on enrollment, I want to urge caution; splitting up Division III could throw us all for a loss. I ask those who favor a split to carefully consider three critical questions as they move forward.

1. In a time of declining male enrollment, can your institution afford to be seen as less competitive athletically?

Any split of D-III will result in a perception that institutions splitting off from the status quo lack the desire to compete and win against the division’s best athletics programs. Colleges that reframe D-III will send a message that athletics should be less important than they are perceived to be at this time. Why else would they form a new alliance of schools?

This shift in the perception of competitiveness could have a disastrous impact on male enrollment at these colleges. If there is one thing we know, it is that teenage boys like athletics and often form their identity around athletic achievement and participation. If a new division is perceived by these same boys to be less competitive, then male enrollment at great liberal arts colleges is likely to plummet further, something neither we nor society can afford. Despite the literature on the Millennials that suggests everyone should be a winner, it is clear that many students -- particularly boys -- want competition and believe it is OK to have winners and losers. We ought not dismiss the possibility of a split resulting in a perception of a less competitive option. Presidents considering this move, can your institution afford to be seen as less competitive athletically?

2. Are you ready to address other areas of imbalance in campus life?

A second area of concern is that a Division III split may send the following unintended message from those institutions that break off: If your passion is athletics, you are not welcome here. I’m told some of the presidents behind the split long for the days of multi-sport athletes who can do everything on campus.

I find it ironic that we encourage diverse interests when it comes to science and literature and music and activism, but not athletics. I’m sorry to say these nostalgic ideas of what should be possible at schools that form a new division are unlikely to be realized and are inconsistent with what this generation of students have been conditioned for -- not to mention what they expect. The students of this generation are fully committed to their passion. As a society we have encouraged and perpetuated their pursuit of a singular passion in our word and deeds. There is not a college-bound soccer player who doesn’t play club soccer throughout the whole year. And, there are few multi-sport athletes who don’t participate in one sport as preparation for their main sport.

Most college athletes -- and their families -- have made a choice of a specific pursuit. They have invested countless dollars in equipment, travel, coaching and camps and they have celebrated that passion as a family. This is life for a Millennial family. Isn’t there a disconnect that the focus of presidents is athletics when we ask musicians and thespians to make the same choices and develop the same passions? Why is it OK for musicians to spend countless hours cultivating their passion, often at the expense of other important areas of liberal education? Why does this concern apply exclusively to athletes? As a president, are you ready to address the other areas of imbalance in campus life in the same way you are moving to address the lives of athletes?

3. Can you risk abandoning the well-established Division III identity at a time when considerable uncertainty exists in the market place?

A final concern is the probable recasting of D-III and the values many have worked hard to establish over the course of the past four decades. I can’t for the life of me figure out why any institution would voluntarily leave the NCAA division that owns the best reputation – even if not the most attention – of them all. It is my impression that what those who are leading the charge want out of the split is for certain “undesirables” (or at least those schools that don’t share the “right” approach to athletics) to voluntarily leave D-III. But, what is the incentive for such schools to leave D-III? I just don’t see this happening. Expulsion is even more unlikely. Because the “undesirables” are unlikely to leave and we are too collegial to kick anyone out, it is more likely there would be secession from D-III by those leading the charge. This is what really concerns me. Because many have spent the past 40 years building the D-III brand and it will be impossible for those who leave to take the brand with them, what are that values around which a new athletic division would coalesce?

This is a serious problem with any proposed split. Not only is it likely that those seceding would be perceived as offering less competitive athletic competition as mentioned above, it could also be thought of as an abandonment of an established brand within the market place. It could take decades to establish, explain and promote a new brand and level of athletic completion. As a president, can you take the risk of losing an established program at a time when demographics are shifting and considerable uncertainty exists in the market place?

As a D-III athlete, I found balance by singing in the college choir, working several part-time jobs on campus and holding student leadership positions. I value my diverse undergraduate experience greatly, and I understand and respect the motives of many presidents who seek change. But I think some are misjudging the generation of students (and parents) we serve and are approaching this discussion and decision in an institution-centered fashion, rather than a student-centered fashion. If we dismiss our students’ desire for competition and passionate involvement, it could have dire consequences for enrollments at many colleges that may be forced into a decision they are not fully prepared to make.

So for those presidents seriously considering taking a lead role in the split of Division III, I urge you slow down and examine the consequences and the potential impact of this on your enrollment and the enrollments of great small colleges from across the nation. We’re all better off if we stay in the game.


W. Kent Barnds, vice president for enrollment at Augustana College, in Illinois, was a member of both the track and field team and the choir while a student at Gettysburg College. Before coming to Augustana, he was dean of admissions and enrollment management at Elizabethtown College.


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