Champions of Enrollment: The Importance of Athletics to Institutional Enrollment

Demographic cliffs, COVID-19 uncertainty, and increased market competition are hurdles we are all being confronted with. Small colleges across the country are continuing their efforts to attract the best and brightest to their campuses to provide a unique educational experience. In many cases, such as Illinois College, these institutions have been providing this exceptional educational experience for over 100 years. Graduates have gone on to impact the world in a multitude of ways over those years. However, as we continue our work for the next 100 years, we are faced with challenges that haven’t been seen in a long time and maybe ever. So, what do small college admissions directors do to support the efforts to recruit high school students during these challenging times? They turn to their colleagues, the “champions” in the athletics department. I am proud to say that this relationship is thriving at Illinois College due to the pipelines that have been developed with the champions at the helm in athletics.

When I arrived on campus in the summer of 2014, there was a feeling of change in the air.  There was a refreshing sense of reinvention and creating new paths to success. This work was found specifically in the relationships and operations between the office of intercollegiate athletics and the office of admissions. The dean of admissions and student financial services, Evan Wilson and I got down to work, almost immediately defining the much-needed collaboration between our two departments. One of the concepts that would develop from these conversations was viewing the coaches within the athletics department and the programs they represented as direct recruitment pipelines to the college. “Our pipeline recruitment strategy allows the college to access a population of students that would not have previously considered the college,” said Wilson. “Having a business plan and defined goals for each pipeline allows for greater predictability and accountability in the enrollment planning process.” Wilson continues by stating, “we often say ‘it takes a campus’ to recruit a class and pipeline recruitment is one of many ways that we bring the college together to reach our goals.”

As Evan stated, these athletics’ pipelines are in place with specific recruitment goals, based on maximizing roster numbers. These annual recruitment goals are set through conversations between Evan as the admissions dean, myself as the director of athletics, as well as with input from the head coaches (our pipeline “champions”). These goals are then used to carefully craft recruitment plans that incorporate monthly numerical goals within the “funnel” to track our process along inquiries, applications, admits, and ultimately deposits. This structure is what we mean when we say the pipelines allow for greater predictability and accountability.

While thinking about “how” we operate, I would be remiss if I didn’t address our “why.” Why do so many small private liberal arts institutions, such as Illinois College, turn to athletics? The reason is simple. Coaches build deep relationships. They connect with their student athletes at a deeper level than almost anyone else can on campus. In addition to that relationship, they have something additional to offer to the students at the institution. They can offer a profound experience through intercollegiate competition. Illinois College has recognized that the connection a coach can offer is a perfect resource to tap into. These relationships allow for not only a strong ability to recruit but to also contribute to the academic success and retention goals of the institution.

These goals are shared across campus. It is necessary that the athletics staff and enrollment team works in tandem. “It’s imperative that admission and athletics work closely together to achieve enrollment success at the college,” said Wilson. “With nearly 50 percent of incoming students on an athletics roster we simply couldn’t hit the mark if we were not on the same page.”

Simply put, Illinois College has invested in the work and relationships needed to power through challenging times. Demographic cliffs and pandemics are huge hurdles to clear. However, the deep partnership and reliance on the exceptional work by our coaching staffs will position our institution for ongoing success.



Director of Athletics, Illinois College

Mike Snyder begins his sixth year as the athletic director of Illinois College. In addition to his responsibilities as athletic director, Snyder was the president of the Collegiate Event and Facility Management Association (CEFMA) in 2016-17 and was named to the Executive Committee of the National Association of Division III Athletic Administrators (NADIIIAA) starting with the 2018-19 academic year.