Lots, say experts. Sports boost pride, provide experiential learning and may help increase enrollment.
Intercollegiate athletics mean much more to Indiana State University than the excitement of competition. Fielding teams in 12 NCAA Division I sports not only helps build campus pride, students and alumni say, but it also provides valuable experiential learning for many students. Plus, having successful teams might even help boost enrollment.
“Athletics plays a very important role with students … establishing an identity as a Sycamore,” said Tommy Lynch, ’14, who helped develop and grow “The Forest” — State’s student cheering section — as director of Sycamore pride and traditions during his time with the Student Government Association. “As an incoming student, I was looking for that engagement to athletics. I knew I was never going to be the next Larry Bird, but I was still going to be that student in the front row at every football and basketball game, and I really wanted the environment that you see with a lot of bigger programs.”
Lynch said the winning seasons posted by many teams in recent years made it easier for The Forest to grow. The men’s basketball team has made four post-season appearances in the Greg Lansing era, the football team made the NCAA playoffs in 2014 for the first time in 30 years, baseball and softball have had post-season runs and the track and field teams have continued their tradition of success.
Lynch is now in graduate school and is on track to complete a master’s degree in student affairs and higher education in 2016.
Rodney Lockman, a biology major from Terre Haute, is the SGA’s current director of Sycamore pride and traditions and has continued to recruit more students to join The Forest.
“Intercollegiate athletics is something for our students to rally around and have Sycamore pride for,” he said. “A lot of school pride, no matter what school, stems from athletics. Our student athletes are working hard to represent our university and their success brings pride to our campus! Additionally, athletics provide our students with safe and fun activities to attend.”
Athletics also provide campus jobs in the form of student office assistants and concession sales, but having competitive sports also means valuable experiential learning for students pursuing careers in such field as sport management and athletic training.
State is one of the few universities in the country where athletic training is provided by the university’s academic program rather than a part of intercollegiate athletics. Many researchers say that type of independent or “mutually exclusive” relationship is better for both student learning and the health of student-athletes, notes Lindsey Eberman, associate professor of applied medicine and rehabilitation.
“From an experiential learning perspective, it’s really helpful for multiple reasons. Undergraduate students are engaged in clinical education, but it also provides a working opportunity for graduate students,” she said. “It gives students a working experience as certified, licensed practicing clinicians. They can use their skills with patients while in graduate medical training.”
Many students, both undergraduate and graduate, also gain clinical experience via the university’s Physical Therapy and Sports Rehabilitation Clinic, which shares space with the athletic training clinic.
About 90 students are enrolled in the undergraduate program and dozens more at the graduate level, including 24 students in a new Doctor of Athletic Training program.
Athletics also provide valuable experience for student broadcasters. Campus radio station WISU has long carried basketball, football and baseball games — coverage that has switched to the university’s new student-run station, WZIS. Beginning this fall, there will be opportunities for many more students thanks to an arrangement for a variety of sports to be carried on ESPN.
Students will produce the telecasts, gaining opportunities to serve as directors, producers, audio engineers, graphics and replay operators, camera operators and on-air talent. A full-time sports video expert from the ISU Student Media team will train and supervise the broadcast teams.
“This is fantastic experiential learning opportunity for our students,” said Philip Glende, executive director of student media. “ESPN is a leader in sports broadcasting, and this partnership will give students a chance to be part of a team producing nationally distributed live sports video.”
Sports may also help boost enrollment — especially when programs have winning seasons. A 2009 study found that success in football and basketball can increase the number of applications to winning schools by 2 to 15 percent, depending on the sport, level of success and the type of school. The study, by Devin G. Pope of The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Jaren C. Pope of Virginia Tech, examined 20 years of applications at 330 NCAA Division I colleges.
A 2014 study by the Popes, now at the University of Chicago and Brigham Young, respectively, found that schools that have “a stellar year” in football or basketball receives SAT scores from up to 10 percent more students.
Indiana State saw enrollment increases following the legendary 1979 basketball team led by Larry Bird and again following NCAA tournament appearances in 1999-2000, 2000-01 and 2010-11. The increase in fall 2011 was part of a consistent period of growth while the earlier increases came during a period when enrollment would often rise for a year or two only to fall again.
Enrollment growth at State this fall follows the first playoff appearance in more than 30 years for the Sycamore football team. While it marks the eighth straight year of growth, research has found a connection between athletic success and success at the admissions office.
“It’s not a coincidence that colleges frequently experience growth in their enrollments when they are also winning in major sports like basketball and football,” said John Beacon, senior vice president for enrollment management, marketing and communications. “We all like to be associated with winning; however, it is difficult to determine the exact extent to which success in athletics contributes to growth in a class of new students. In the end, most students select a college for three reasons: academic reputation, location and size. These three attributes have remained constants since the early ’60s when Baby Boomers started college,” he said.
Rex Kendall, executive director of the ISU Alumni Association, said there is no doubt sports help build pride from graduates.
“Alumni enjoy gathering in their respective communities to watch televised athletic events involving their alma mater,” he said. “Athletic events are great opportunities to get alumni to return to campus. Homecoming, for example, is the largest alumni event of any given year. Alumni return to socialize with their colleagues, former classmates, roommates and reconnect with friends.”
The homecoming football game is the largest attended game of the year, and men’s and women’s basketball attract large crowds of supportive and energetic alumni who want to be there the next time the Sycamores make a big splash on the national scene, Kendall said.