November 14, 2021
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A State Higher Education System Struggles To Create A New Template For College Athletics

An historic vote was taken on Wednesday in Pennsylvania beginning the process of combining six standalone college campuses into two, positioning the system to weather the significant downturn in college-aged in-state students coming in the next decade. Among others, one huge question remains: what does that mean for the thousands of athletes on those campuses?

Much has been written about the system’s challenges from an academic and system finance perspective, but little has been covered about the future of these athletic departments. The obvious questions include: will each school be able to maintain their athletic program and identity? Will the Bloomsburg Huskies remain the Huskies? How about the Clarion Golden Eagles? The answer may lie in how the NCAA defines an athletics program.

The vast majority of the 14 Pennsylvania state universities form the Division II Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference; a few campuses offer Division I sports that compete in other conferences. Home to 95,000 students, the six slated for merger in particular are struggling with declining enrollment, massive debt, and decades of declining state investments. Tuition income has remained relatively flat, and with fewer students enrolling in some of the more rural campuses, they have become a financial drag on the remaining campuses that are growing. Something’s got to give.

Enter PASSHE system chancellor Daniel Greenstein. Recruited from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2018, Greenstein has taken back the annual legislative event of “kicking the can” down the road and placed it squarely in the hands of state legislators, campus presidents, faculty and staff to address. On Wednesday, a 439-page report was presented to the Pennsylvania legislature outlining the work done to date, and a proposed plan for integration moving forward. Greenstein followed up this report with a virtual Q&A with state senators.

The six campuses are grouped into two pods—one for the northeast portion of the state (Lock Haven University, Mansfield University and Bloomsburg University), and another for the western portion (California University, Clarion University and Edinboro University). Most have  notable athletic programs, and some have won national championships in multiple sports in Division II. Understandably, athletic department personnel, athletes and alumni are engaged in the planning process. (Full disclosure: the author is a former field hockey player at Lock Haven University).

Traditionally, the NCAA has defined one athletics program as having one Federal Tax ID number. Under the current rules, the NCAA would only recognize two athletic programs. Imagine the uproar around that decision—which school? Which sports? Where would it be located? What would happen to the other sports on other campuses? How about their traditions and alumni? Are we even considered a real college campus if we don’t have a varsity athletics program?

All of these questions will inevitably percolate up to other colleges as they look to merge, acquire or partner with institutions that have athletic programs. What can college presidents who are considering a partnership with another institution learn from what Pennsylvania’s system is going through right now?

On background, I was told there are several strategies in play to allow all six campuses to keep their Division II athletics programs and their brand identities, all while growing the sports programs on each campus. There are plans for keeping a core administrative team on each campus that would be in charge of NCAA compliance and Title IX. The plans outline maxing out squad sizes, addressing facility improvements and adding new sports to each campus.

It may seem counter-intuitive to add sports and facilities at this point, but sources tell me senior leaders believe in the power of athletics to do three things: add and retain more students to the residence halls, strengthen campus life and vibrancy, and grow overall enrollment by 4-8% on each campus. They believe the return on investment by growing the athletics program will show significant dividends in 3-5 years.

Athletics facility improvements can get really expensive, really fast. These six locations have nearly $250 million in deferred maintenance, and hundreds of millions of dollars in construction debt on already underutilized campus housing stock on the books. Will high school athletes choose to come if further investments aren’t made? It’s a gamble for sure. But the fact remains—in today’s volatile higher ed environment, there is no one best strategy for all.

System Board Chair Cynthia Shapira told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “We can’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.” There is no perfect answer for any system struggling with declining State investment. The PASSHE office is preparing a marketing campaign called “Better Together”. A 60-day public comment period is now open; it’s quite possible the final plan may look slightly different.

The NCAA has been under tremendous strain to adapt to the changing landscape; the potential new configuration of these six schools challenges the very definition of what a traditional athletics program looks like. Conversely, these athletic programs will need to clearly define why future students and alumni should focus on the rich histories and traditions each has produced. Current plans are to maintain the physical location of each integrated campus; will that be enough to create a unique sense of place respectful of those traditions?