One of the most difficult things an athletic director must battle daily is the breaking down of silos not only within their own athletic department but also across campus. It is normal that the athletic department and other departments on campus will have competing goals when it comes to finding the same resolution. This can lead to hard feelings and difficult relationships. One of the largest silos to break down on NCAA Division III campuses is between athletics and admissions.
I had a men’s basketball coach who was recruiting a tall post player from a local high school. He was an outstanding student as well as an immediate impact player and we thought he would easily qualify for academic support in the way of an honors scholarship. The player liked our school. He wanted to stay close to home and respected our coaching staff. However, in the world of Division III athletics, we quickly learn that what one school views as fair academic scholarship levels is sometimes vastly different from another. Every school is different when it comes to the academic standards they require for admission and for academic scholarship aid. What qualifies for a full tuition scholarship one place may only be a half scholarship at a more academically prestigious university.
Academic scholarships vary from school to school and sometimes by several thousands of dollars. One university might give a full tuition scholarship to a student with a 3.9 GPA and 32 ACT or above and another school might provide that same aid to a student with much lower academic numbers. It depends on the academic standing and ranking of the university and how their financial aid department and board of trustees determines academic merit aid. Academic aid is the single biggest variant among Division III financial aid packages.
One way we tried to work with our admission’s office was a weekly meeting between our leadership team and theirs. It offered us the opportunity to discuss trends we were seeing in athletic recruiting and possibly head off issues before they occurred. It is important to note that athletics had no say in the academic standards, admission acceptance or financial aid package of a student-athlete. In our weekly meeting with admissions, I explained to the admission staff that my head coach in basketball who is hired and retained in part on his ability to develop a successful and competitive basketball program, had high interest in a certain basketball player. He was extremely frustrated because our academic scholarship was far below that of a competitor. I explained why he might be upset with admissions and financial aid.
The overall goals of the admissions office are to enroll a certain number of students each year, meet a net revenue goal and stay within financial boundaries established by the administration and the board. The athletic department played a key part of that mission as we annually brought in over 40% of the incoming class and had goals of our own to meet. Right away it is obvious we have conflicting viewpoints on this individual recruit.
While admissions may have 2300 applicants to draw their class of 500 future freshmen from, the basketball coach, in need of a post player to be successful next season, may only have one or two candidates who have the academic qualifications, size and talent to fill that role. In addition, the player may be the only one who can immediately play at the level of our highly competitive conference. The admission’s office can afford to lose the basketball recruit to another school because they still have 2299 other applicants to pull from. The basketball coach may not have any other alternatives who fit the admission’s standards and can play and perform at such a high level of competition.
Breaking down the silo between admissions and athletics is important to be able to honestly discuss recruits, their values to the university and the incoming class and the individual athletic programs they represent. The admission’s office is the only one who can admit or deny students to a campus, they set the standards for admissions. Student-athletes must always be legitimate students who are able to perform in the classroom to the maximum of their abilities. The athletic department is generally an asset to all universities in advancing their diversity goals.
There are directions in which you must never go, “a line in the sand”, as it were, which you cannot cross:
Never compromise your commitment to the academic success and graduation of student-athletes.
Never violate the autonomy of the Director of Admissions.
Ensure that all admitted students have the ability and willingness to do the academic work necessary at your university.
Never depart from the principles of sound financial management.
When you lose a student-athlete of considerable talent because another university provides them a much stronger academic aid package than yours, it is very difficult on your coach. Those who watch the program from the outside only see that Coach X lost this highly talented player from just down the road to another league rival. Your coaching staff must not be able to recruit local talent? Those on the outside do not know there might be significant differences in financial aid packages even among conference members because after all they have been told over and over, Division III is all the same and provides need-based aid on an equal footing. But we all know that is not the truth. Diverse levels of academic packages allow for significant differences in packages at the Division III level. Combined with church scholarships, and other innovative and creative programs not all financial aid packages are equal in Division III.
Athletics needs to have a strong line of communication with admissions. Admission leadership understands that when their class of 500 enrolls next fall, they are officially done with them. It is everyone else’s job on campus to make sure they succeed and graduate. The other silos come into place. Student success, housing, clubs, Greek life, academic programs and faculty, etc, all play a role in the success or failure of those students. The really good admission’s office staff members stay in contact with some of the members of the class, but they are on to the next group of 500 seemingly overnight. But for the athletic coach and athletic leadership, their relationship with that student-athlete is just starting. They work with all the different silos across campus. Individual coaching careers depend on those athletes performing in the classroom, on campus, in the competitive arenas and graduating.
The great athletic programs in Division III have broken down the silos between athletics and others. They have developed a line of communication and a level of trust that athletics will do what they say and develop young men and women who will become tomorrow’s leaders. In return, athletics has the right to ask for their voice to be heard when it comes to those individual student-athletes who meet all university requirements and guidelines.
We lost that basketball student-athlete to one of our major competitors. We competed against him for four years. Our financial package was far below that offered by the other school. This was not a one-time case. Sometimes we won the battle and sometimes we lost. It was my job as athletic director to make sure our coaches understood that as a university, we were always going to be different from others and that we were not going to be competitive in every case on every student-athlete. What any coach or department should hope though is that through proper conversation, breaking down of silos, you develop the ability to be at least be close and give your coaching staff a chance.