Episode 11: Life's going to get harder for smaller schools
Is your favorite school going to close? Probably not. But could things get harder for them? It's possible!
A story in the Chronicle of Higher Education ($) a few days ago caught my eye. It’s behind a paywall, but the gist is that more and more small private schools, especially in the Northeast and along the East Coast, are struggling to admit enough students to pay the bills. Demographic trends are not favoring those types of schools (which many observers of higher education have noted) as future graduating classes simply will not produce as many students able to pay full tuition at a smaller, non-elite school, especially in an era with high student debt.
Hell, at least some forecasters think half of all colleges could be closed in the next decade. Moody’s recently painted a less-than-optimistic picture of the financial health of the higher ed sector as well.
This is interesting to a nerd like me, but mainly for personal, rather than football reasons. I grew up in Granville, Ohio, home of Denison University. Denison is small (enrollment under 3k), kinda rural (population of Granville: under 6,000), and not elite (I mean, it’s fine. It’s selective, but it’s not MIT). I also come from a family of educators, so I have my ear to the ground on this stuff maybe a bit more than your average beat writer.
So I read it, but I wasn’t going to include it here.
Then I went back and read more coverage of the MIAC kicking out St.Thomas for being too good at sports. And this paragraph really stuck out to me.
Competition for male students is especially keen among private liberal arts colleges. Only undergrads are eligible in the MIAC, but too many presidents felt UST’s athletic success and graduate school offerings — the law school and a soon-to-open nursing program, among others — gave the Tommies an edge in attracting men, whether athletes or not. That gap, they feared, would only grow wider. That meant fewer students for the others, and less revenue. Don’t be surprised if a MIAC school closes or merges with another in the next ten years; that’s where things are trending.
NOW this is a football story
Many of the schools in the MIAC fit a similar profile to the aforementioned [above Inside Higher Ed and Chronicle of Higher Education] stories. They’re very small. They’re often rural. They’re private. And they’re in a region of the country (the upper Midwest) that isn’t booming in population growth.
There aren’t many schools that fit this profile in big time college football. There are only three private schools in FBS with enrollment under 10,000 (Wake Forest and Rice), and just one, Tulsa, with under 5,000. Those jobs have challenges, for sure. Hell, JFK was dunking on Rice football for being trash way back in the 1960s, and folks, not much has changed. That said, I feel pretty confident that those three schools aren’t closing up shop in the near future.
It’s not even especially common in FCS, or even across all of D1. There are a handful of FCS programs with enrollments under 5,000, mostly commonly in the Big South and NEC. According to the NCAA’s official numbers, about 10% of D1 has an enrollment under 3,000. That’d be about 35 schools, give or take, including the schools that don’t have football programs.
But DIII is full of these schools. Again, per those NCAA numbers, a full 77% of DIII schools have enrollment of 3,000 or fewer, and tons of them are in rural areas. Those schools don’t have TV deals, or even much of a gate above 2,000 attendees, so managing costs is at a premium. If the schools themselves increasingly struggle to attract students, their ability to exist, let alone maintain college football programs, could be in question.
How that plays out will vary from institution to institution. After all, many DIII schools start football teams explicitly to try and improve male enrollment numbers. This may be possible in geographic areas with football culture, but may not be possible at a bean bag institution.
I’m skeptical that we’ll see mass closings in the next few years. But financial pressures are hitting almost all colleges, including at the FBS level. Maybe for really small, DIII/NAIA type schools, that could mean closures. But for smaller D1 programs, it could require them to make some pretty tough choices as athletic departments.
I get that if you’re a casual football fan, you probably don’t care too much if say, Western New England, or Wisconsin Lutheran, or Kenyon, continue to play football games. But even a dozen DIII or NAIA teams folding up means dozens of coaching jobs are gone, jobs that could be stepping stones to FCS or FBS gigs. It means a loss of development opportunities for high schoolers. And depending on what happens to the schools themselves, it could mean real damage to the higher education ecosystem in multiple regions of the country.
This industry has changed a ton over the last few decades, and it’s about to change even more. I’m not sure everybody is equipped to handle those changes, and it figures that at least some football programs will be impacted.
Northwestern will play more football games at Wrigley Field, for some reason?
Sorry if this offends folks, but I think college football games are best played at college football stadiums.
There are rare exceptions, like maybe Lambeau Field, but generally, playing a game in a non-college football stadium is at best, a silly novelty, and at worst, a sterile product. We get neutral site games every season that are fun for TV, but once you take all the college kids and local flavor out of the game…it isn’t really college football anymore.
Northwestern football is apparently going to play more games at a non-Northwestern facility. Specifically, Wrigley Field. From my pals at InsideNU:
Northwestern football will host games at Wrigley Field in 2022, 2024 and 2026, head coach Pat Fitzgerald said in an interview on a 247Sports podcast that was released this past weekend.
Fitzgerald did not specify who Northwestern’s opponents would be for the 2022/2024/2026 Wrigley games, but with the ‘Cats ability to play at Wrigley limited to November because of baseball season, it is likely that all three will be Big Ten contests. With Illinois slotted into the Thanksgiving weekend slot for all three of those seasons, at least one game seems likely to take place against the Illini.
I get why Northwestern has to do stuff like this. They’re trying, desperately, to market themselves in Chicago. You can’t drive anywhere in the northwest side of the city without seeing a NORTHWESTERN: CHICAGO’S BIG TEN TEAM billboard, even in neighborhoods where the sidewalk Northwestern fan population would be less than zero (like mine). Wrigley Field is cool, and it will probably attract some fans who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in anything to do with Northwestern athletics.
But Wrigley Field is a baseball stadium. It wasn’t built for football, as previous experience made very clear. And every game the school plays in the city, especially against good, Big Ten teams, is a game detached from Northwestern students, the real population the school needs to sell on Wildcat football.
I understand why schools do stuff like this. But I wish it was consigned to the novelty bin, a one-off to secure a special non-conference opponent, or a once-in-a-blue-moon event, rather than a staple of future schedules. Northwestern has a hard enough time getting Northwestern fans to show up to Ryan Field. Taking away an opponent to play the game down the Red Line isn’t going to help build that home field advantage.
It’s your students, not the insurance salesmen from Kenosha or Davenport looking for an excuse to visit Wrigley Field, that will make up the backbone of your program. I hope schools make more scheduling decisions with that in mind.
It sucks that Art Briles got another coaching job
If you are a good football coach, no matter what you did, somebody is going to try and hire you again. Art Briles is a good football coach, and lo and behold people have regularly tried to hire him. Over the holiday weekend, a high school in Texas finally did. You can tell how proud they are of this decision, since they released the news on the Friday evening before Memorial Day weekend.
I could rip this for 1,000 words. But Mike Finger did a better job than I ever could.
Read that column instead.
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I have about 1,500 words of the first podcast script written, which will be about the Black 14, `filed, and really am hoping to share an episode with you all this week. So stay tuned if you want to listen to a story about one of the most impactful college football stories ever.