Do Sports Programs and Community Colleges Mix?

Community colleges are supposed to be an educational stepping stone for people who didn’t make much of their K-12 years or find that they need to learn a new skill if they are to find a new job. The idea that those schools would become more effective in their role by adding organized sports programs seems strange. Quite a few of them are doing so, however.

Are community colleges and sports programs a sensible mix?

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (“To Increase Enrollment, Community Colleges Add More Sports, July 6, 2007, available to subscribers here.) focuses on Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, NC. The school’s president, Donald W. Cameron, has just created a baseball team at Guilford Tech and joined the National Junior College Athletic Association. According to the article, more than 40 other community colleges have joined the NJCAA since 2003, which currently has 16 members in North Carolina.

Mr. Cameron sees the sports program as a benefit for the school as a whole, saying that “Athletics is just one more way of offering extracurricular opportunities that make a whole student.” Furthermore, he contends, the addition of sports teams has “really turned our student morale around. Our bookstore manager will tell you that he cannot keep our sports paraphernalia in stock.”

Another supporter of sports programs is Robert C. Keys, president of Rockingham Community College in Wentworth, NC. Keys states, “We live in an athletics-minded world. A lot of people think that if you don’t have an athletics program, you’re not a real college.”

Asked if having competitive athletics doesn’t create some headaches, Keys responded, “Yes, but so do nursing and chemistry. If that was the only criteria, we wouldn’t have many programs.”

Some community colleges go so far as to recruit students from around the country and even internationally in order to do well in national championships.

The athletics program at Guilford Tech cost the school $165,000 this year and that figure will increase by $20,000 when the baseball team gets going. Under North Carolina law, community colleges are not allowed to spend funds from state appropriations on athletics, so Guilford pays for them for out of student fees, bookstore revenues, and donations.

All expenditures, of course, have their “opportunity cost.” That is economists’ lingo for the best alternative that is foregone when you decide to do something. The student fees, bookstore revenues and donations could be used for other purposes. (It isn’t clear from the article if the donations are given specifically for athletics; if not, then the point about opportunity cost applies.) Is it really the case that the expenses associated with fielding competitive sports teams (equipment, travel, compensation for coaches and so on) are the best use of funds? Perhaps, as Cameron contends, having sports teams boosts “student morale,” but even if we accept that that’s true – and how would we know since morale is not something we can measure – shouldn’t the key consideration instead be student academic achievement?

Let’s put it this way. If we have to choose between having a baseball team whose successes might make some or perhaps even most of the students feel good for a while and spending more money to improve teaching and learning, which way should we go?

That question seems to answer itself, so the real question would be if there are ways that community colleges could spend their funds that would improve teaching and learning. The answer is yes.

Hiring more and better faculty members is the most obvious way. At one of the largest community colleges in North Carolina, Wake Tech, courses in economics have had to be cancelled because at the very low rate of pay the school can offer to prospective faculty members, it can’t attract enough professors. Low compensation for faculty members is a problem throughout the state’s community college system. Putting more resources into hiring capable professors would certainly seem to be a higher priority use of money than fielding sports teams.

It’s certainly true that athletics are a big part of American life, but it doesn’t follow that every school must have competitive teams. There are many smaller colleges and universities that confine their athletics just to club sports that interested students can participate in if they wish to. Having softball as a club sport, for example, would be far less costly than an intercollegiate baseball team.

We should also bear in mind that the nation’s largest university, the University of Phoenix, doesn’t have any athletics at all. Students just take courses. That model works fine, efficiently delivering educational main courses without the added cost of side dishes and desserts. Shouldn’t community colleges operate the basically the same way?

But what about recruiting? Mr. Keys says that he began his school’s sports program in 1998 in order to appeal to high school students who had played varsity sports and didn’t want to attend a college that didn’t have similar athletic programs. Perhaps a few students decide whether to enroll in a community college or in some alternative based on sports considerations, but the number is probably very small. More importantly, though, why should North Carolina community colleges worry about recruiting? Spending money to attract a few additional students who might go elsewhere if it weren’t for the presence of a baseball team doesn’t seem to be of any importance for the people of the state.

Finally, there is the problem that having sports programs create the possibility of misuse of funds, favoritism, and other abuses. In 2006, the North Carolina State Auditor’s office found serious deficiencies relating to the baseball team at Blue Ridge Community College. (You can read the report here.) The State Auditor’s findings led to a resolution of the State Board of Community Colleges censuring the Trustees of Blue Ridge Community College for their failure to properly oversee the actions of the school’s president.

College sports programs divert resources from educational uses and create avoidable headaches. It would be wise for community college leaders to steer away from them and concentrate on academics.