Going on the offensive for student recruitment

By Tabitha Whissemore

Some lesser-celebrated sports at community colleges are growing — and helping colleges grow enrollment.

Athletics have restarted at many community colleges since pausing last year due to the pandemic. While there’s been a focus on the return of football, basketball and baseball, some lesser-celebrated sports are growing.

Bowling, cross country, esports and swimming and diving are becoming more popular, partly because they’re fairly pandemic-proof, says National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) President Christopher Parker.

In December, the NJCAA announced that it had sanctioned four emerging sports: competitive cheer, women’s wrestling, clay target shooting and men’s volleyball.

“Athletics is a vital driver of enrollment for many NJCAA member colleges. The addition of these four sports will also provide a pathway to increase opportunities for student-athletes around the country,” Parker said in a release.

When considering adding a sport to the NJCAA line-up, the organization evaluates it from a cost perspective. Is it an economically sound sport? Men’s volleyball, for example, is an inexpensive sport to adopt if a college already offers women’s volleyball. Same with women’s wrestling, which NJCAA also recently sanctioned.

Just last month, the association added women’s flag football to the list in a joint effort with the National Football League (NFL) and Reigning Champs Experiences (RCX). The sport is still at the grassroots level, Parker says, but it’s growing in high schools. Offering it at community colleges makes sense from the recruitment standpoint.

With the partnership, the NFL will provide a $150,000 grant to the NJCAA Foundation to distribute to NJCAA-member colleges that intend to participate in the sport over the next two years. The NJCAA Foundation, along with the NFL and RCX, will award $10,000 grants to 15 member colleges to move the initiative a step closer toward becoming a full championship sport over the next few years.

Source of enrollment and student success

Pratt Community College (PCC) in Kansas is one of the 15 colleges considering adding women’s flag football to its line-up of Beaver Athletics.

“We’re always looking for ways to bring students to campus,” says President Michael Calvert.

The college ended its football program in 1986, but it’s not lacking for other sports – track, wrestling, men’s and women’s soccer, baseball, rodeo and esports, just to name a few.

“Activities are very important for us. They’re a great source of enrollment, campus pride and community pride,” Calvert says. Students involved in athletics also “are driven,” he adds. Graduation rates for student athletes tend to be higher than for those not involved in activities.

Women’s flag football will “raise a few eyebrows,” Calvert says, but so did esports when PCC adopted that five years ago, back when the sport was still a novelty. Calvert doesn’t anticipate huge enrollment growth from adding the sport, at least not in the beginning, but he knows that it will enhance the student experience at PCC.

And the college already has the field for it. In 2019, in collaboration with the city, PCC opened a new facility that includes a soccer field and an all-weather track. The lined field also includes football goal posts. The facility is jointly used by the college and the community.

“Communities our size, we need to leverage every chance we get,” Calvert says.

He says the college talks with the high school sports association to see what sports are emerging and which sports are losing numbers.

Along with flag football, PCC is considering adding women’s wrestling, which is gaining popularity at high schools. Wrestling is “a big deal in the Midwest,” Calvert says. PCC’s men’s wrestling team won the Jayhawk Conference for the first time ever this year and is getting ready to head for national meet.

Calvert also wants to bring attention to some sports that don’t get as much publicity. The college’s co-ed competitive cheer team competed for the first time at the National Cheerleaders Association College Nationals earlier this month, taking second place in its division.

And clay target shooting – or trap shooting – is a sport that complements PCC’s wildlife outfitting and operations program.

Sports of all kinds “give people direction,” Calvert says. “There is a cost, but if your goal is to increase student success, activities and sports are a way to help solidify that.”

There’s more to the story! Read the full article in CC Daily.

Tabitha Whissemore

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.