How do you know if a D-II school made the right decision to go D-I?
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Last year, five different D-II schools began their reclassification process into D-1: Lindenwood University, Queens University of Charlotte, Stonehill College, Texas A&M University-Commerce, and the University of Southern Indiana. The Tommies of St. Thomas began the process in 2021 (via D-III instead of D-II), and another four schools reclassified in 2020.
Ten schools in three years is a lot of reclassifications, but we’re lurching near the halfway mark of 2023, and so far, no other D-II schools have announced an intent to reclassify.
That could potentially change, as I’m aware of multiple D-I conferences looking to add new members and multiple D-II schools that would be interested in reclassifying under the right circumstances, but nothing is finalized as of yet. It’s entirely possible that none happen in 2023.
There are some good reasons for this. The geography of conferences looking for new members doesn’t always match up with the geography and institutional fit of D-II schools evaluating other opportunities. The timing may not line up either, as some schools may be going through presidential transitions, new institutional strategic plans, or political upheaval.
And also, shoot, playing D-I sports is expensive, and it’s almost certainly only going to become more expensive, thanks to recommendations from the NCAA Transformation Committee, NIL responsibilities, and the potential need to directly compensate athlete labor. Nobody has any idea what the heck college sports is really going to look like in five years, which makes the institutional investments required for reclassification even more politically challenging.
Who wants to triple their athletic budget and build some new buildings, only to discover that you can’t participate in whatever system the courts mandate by 2028?
Still, the risk calculus ought to be very different from school to school. I don’t like giving blanket recommendations anymore about what a school should or shouldn’t do re: athletic classifications, because what a 10,000+ student public school in a growing metropolitan area might want to do should be completely different from a tuition-dependent 3,000 student school in say, suburban Connecticut.
Are you moving up because you think you can compete for NCAA D-I national titles? Because you’re trying to grow enrollment or alumni engagement? Fight for visibility in a crowded market? Change the composition of your undergraduate student body?
All of this makes me wonder…when can you actually evaluate whether reclassifying was a good idea?
Queens was an excellent D-II athletic department, one that competed for national titles in multiple sports (they’re happy to point out that Queens has more national titles than every other NCAA school in Charlotte…combined). This is quite an accomplishment, given that Queens is also a tiny school…both in enrollment ~2,500 students) and square footage (I’ve been there…the whole place fits into like, five blocks).
It doesn’t matter how good you were in D-II…you aren’t moving to D-I and instantly competing for national championships. Queens is prohibited by national bylaw from participating in NCAA postseason events until they’re finished with the reclassification process, but even if that wasn’t the case…the competitive jump is significant. Via the story:
There have indeed been several instances of Royals teams posting markedly worse overall records this season than last. For example, the men’s basketball team — which finished the 2021-22 season with a dominating 30-4 overall record and as champion of their former Division II conference, the South Atlantic — was 18-15 this past season; Royals women’s tennis went 5-18 in its first season as a D-I squad after posting a 16-2 Division II record last year; and the men’s tennis team was 5-17 a year removed from a 15-5 campaign. However, slides aren’t atypical for schools making such leaps. And, like with waiting out the NCAA postseason ban, it could turn out to be just a short-term concern. The athletic department is playing a longer game, one that it figures it can break open thanks to recruiting efforts newly geared toward attracting Division I-level talent.
The story also points to professors and students lamenting the new travel obligations on the athletes, and a very unique, athlete-centered culture at Queens, where over 25% of the student body plays a sport (a huge percentage for a D-I institution).
But school leaders can also point to enrollment gains:
New student enrollment, Queens says, is up 30% for the fall 2023 semester, and Lugo says applications from men specifically have risen by more than 40% (notable because of the fact that, in recent years, enrollment has hovered around a 2-to-1 female-to-male ratio). He also notes that applications from major cities near ASUN schools — Atlanta; Jacksonville, Florida; Nashville — have increased by more than 40%.
This was something athletic department staffers told me when I visited last year, and part of the reason the school ended up joining the ASUN, even though the school is more in the Big South conference footprint…they hoped to become more visible and recruit more students in other major Southern metros, along with athletes.
Now, will those application trends continue if ASUN membership changes (Kennesaw State, just north of Atlanta, for example, is leaving the league for Conference USA)? Can they be sustained once the novelty of moving to D-I wears off, especially if Queens struggles on the court? Maybe, maybe not. It’s too early to tell.
St. Thomas is also taking a much longer view
Mark Vangsgard, UST’s vice president of business affairs and chief financial officer, told Twin Cities Business:
“In part, we’re building a long-term strategy for the institution,” says Mark Vangsgard, UST’s vice president of business affairs and chief financial officer. “The success or failure of our D1 move will be measured 15 years from now, and we will have the benefit of hindsight.”
According to TCB, UST AD Phil Esten estimates that UST’s annual athletic budget will sit “between $21 and $24 million”, or more than four times what the school was spending in D-III. Of course, UST’s athletic revenues are a teensy bit more than they were back in the MIAC, but still, that represents a massive new financial commitment, to say nothing of the fundraising required for ambitious new facility projects.
UST, with a 10,000 student enrollment, law school and $500 million dollar endowment, isn’t the same kind of school as Queens. But they’re also looking at their athletic reclassification from an enrollment perspective, not just an athletic one.
The D1 gambit is not, at its core, about wearing out its welcome in the MIAC. It’s about UST’s desire to become a national Catholic educational brand, and having a place in the most visible NCAA athletics tier is a pathway to it. Greater visibility will attract more students from outside Minnesota.
Basically, Vangsgard says, high school graduation numbers in Minnesota are declining, with fewer graduates going on to college. “Demographics are running against all colleges and universities in the state,” Vangsgard says. That shrinking pool means UST and every other Minnesota institution must draw from elsewhere to fill future freshman classes.
“The best phrase I’ve heard about what higher education is facing is we’re entering a winner-takes-most market,” says UST president Rob Vischer, formerly the dean of the law school. “To be among those who flourish, we just have to grow our reputation beyond Minnesota’s borders.”
The Tommies have enjoyed some on-field success over the last two years. They did, after all, win the Pioneer Football League title last season, and they were very competitive in Summit League men’s basketball this year. Other reclassifying programs, like Merrimack and Bellarmine, have already won regular season men’s basketball conference championships.
But given the costs and massive amount of uncertainty in the D-I model, nobody reclassifies just because they think they can compete for conference championships out of the gate. At both of these schools…and at Utah Tech, and Stonehill, and elsewhere, this is a long-term play…one that probably can’t be fully evaluated for years.
Which is worth keeping in mind, I think, for fans or anybody else that is clamoring for any particular school to move up. It isn’t just about who has enjoyed athletic success at D-II (or in rare cases, D-III), although having fan support and a winning athletic tradition certainly helps. It’s also about fundraising, about infrastructure, and about whether a reclassification even makes sense for that school’s institutional goals.
There’s nothing wrong with being a very good D-II athletic department, after all.
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