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The news that St. Cloud State and University of Minnesota Crookston planned to drop their football programs for financial reasons hit close to home for Minnesota State Athletics Director Kevin Buisman. He and St. Cloud football coach Scott Underwood were high school best buddies in Marion, Iowa. And Buisman knows the factors that led St. Cloud to cut football and two other sports — declining enrollment and its troublesome corollary, declining revenue — could just as easily surface at his university in the coming years.

“If it can happen at St. Cloud, it can happen anywhere,” Buisman said. “I think it is a bit of a wakeup call for all of us.”

Higher education is in the midst of an enrollment crisis, with declining birth rates and other factors contributing to fewer high school graduates attending American colleges and universities. Nationally, more than 2.9 million fewer students enrolled in college last spring than in fall 2011, per the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

That’s particularly worrisome for athletic directors and coaches in NCAA Divisions II and III, where lucrative television rights fees are nonexistent, and athletic departments rely on institutional financial support to balance their budgets.

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From 2010 to 2019 enrollment in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system fell 14%, with the seven universities down almost 9%, according to a St. Cloud Times analysis. (The University of Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth are not part of the system.) St. Cloud State enrollment dropped an alarming 25% percent, the largest in the system, falling from 21,938 in 2010 to 16,326 in 2019.

St. Cloud planned to lay off eight tenured faculty and four librarians before announcing the athletics cuts. Losing a Title IX lawsuit filed by former SCSU student-athletes (the school is appealing) factored somewhat into the athletics decision, which included adding men’s soccer.

Downward enrollment trend likely to continue

Future enrollment projections are not encouraging. In his 2018 book “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” Carleton College economics professor Nathan Grawe predicted a 15 percent drop nationwide in students attending college from 2025 to 2029, based on declining birth rates at the outset of the Great Recession (2008-11). He expects Minnesota schools to lose between 7.5% and 15%, with the entire West North Central area — including Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas — down 11.3%.

With fewer students providing tuition revenue, some institutions may go out of business. Moody’s Investors Service reported more than double the number of small U.S. colleges closing in 2015-17 over the previous decade. That may not be the worst of it.

“If you’re not attached to enrollment trends the last five years, you’re missing the boat,” Buisman said. “Because you’re so profoundly impacted by enrollment trends, in terms of student fees support and the overall financial health of the university, you have to be conscious about what’s going on with that.

“This whole northern tier of the country is experiencing declining enrollment. The pie is shrinking, and it just means we’re fighting each other for what’s there and what’s available to your institution.”

Buisman said this before leaving for Texas, where Saturday the 14-0 Mavericks football team faces West Florida (12-2) for the D2 national championship. “We like to say playing a national championship game on the ESPN networks is a 3½-hour commercial for Maverick athletics and Minnesota State University,” he said. “We’ll see how that translates into future fund-raising support.”

Steady enrollment at Minnesota State

Minnesota State has been fortunate. Enrollment at the Mankato-based school where the Minnesota Vikings used to train is holding steady at about 17,300, almost exactly the same as in 2010. It’s been a successful fall for Mavs athletics. Besides football, women’s soccer reached the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals, and men’s hockey spent five weeks at No. 1 in the USCHO.com Division 1 national poll before falling this week to No. 2.

Many universities believe thriving athletic programs can attract students whether they play sports or not. Minnesota State is one. Last year Buisman and school officials agreed to a novel proposal: For every four athletes recruited in baseball, women’s soccer, men’s & women’s track and field and swimming, the university funded one full scholarship to be divided among them. That added about 150 athletes to those rosters, all contributing a fair amount of tuition to the revenue pot.

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“As we face these enrollment challenges, part of the solution might be growing athletics,” Buisman said. “As long as we’re generating positive public notoriety for the programs and the university, there’s a willingness to invest the right kind of resources into making this successful at a championship level.”

Farther north, the University of Minnesota Duluth faces $5.2 million in campuswide budget cuts for 2020 that almost certainly will impact athletics. UMD, which hasn’t had a balanced budget since 2011, plans to merge its School of Fine Arts and College of Liberal Arts as part of a 3% reduction in operational spending. A slight enrollment uptick since 2010 — 10,858 now, 10,725 then — only helps so much at an institution carrying $6.8 million in debt, per the Star Tribune.

“When our campus has navigated some financial challenges, including one more recently, we (in athletics) have to be part of those solutions,” said Bulldogs Athletic Director Josh Berlo. “We’ve been really focused on shifting the paradigm to generating as much external support as we can. There was a time where the athletic department was by and large funded by the university. That has changed quite a bit.”

While difficult to quantify, the profile of UMD’s two-time defending NCAA champion men’s hockey team may have contributed to an increase in applications the last two years. Former women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller’s protracted and recently settled discrimination lawsuit against the university brought a different kind of notoriety. Yet Berlo helped raise at least $1 million each of the last six years in support of athletics.

“When the university has to make decisions on allocations and they have to pull back the financial piece, we’re part of that,” Berlo said. “That percentage comes out of the institutional support we receive, and we’ve got to be able to navigate that and figure that out. Last year we finished a little bit in the black, which is great. We try to supplement the marketing effort with the visibility of our programs.”

Division III dynamics

In Division III, the absence of athletic scholarships reduces expenses significantly. But funding athletics, and everything else, remains an issue. Enrollment at Bethel University in Arden Hills, which belongs to the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, dropped from 4,860 to 4,387 in four years, prompting layoffs and a 10% reduction in its operating budget to counter a projected $11 million budget shortfall the next three years. How that impacts athletics is uncertain; Athletic Director Bob Bjorkland did not respond to an emailed interview request.

Enrollment is also down at Hamline University in St. Paul. Despite five consecutive years of record first-year student enrollment, Hamline’s overall enrollment of 3,404 is still significantly less than its high of 5,166 in 2009. That’s partly because of the 2016 merger of the law school with William Mitchell. Hamline Athletic Director Jason Verdugo said there are no plans to cut any of Hamline’s 20 intercollegiate sports because its administration believes athletics can drive enrollment. That’s why it added women’s lacrosse in 2017.

“I’d be lying to say in years past we haven’t looked at that, and potential trends,” he said. “We added lacrosse, which has been a good add for us. You’ll start to see that as a strategy.”

Yet as budgets tighten, Verdugo expects some schools to go the other way and offer fewer sports. That’s already happening in the MIAC. St. Mary’s in Winona, the conference’s smallest school (undergraduate enrollment: 1,089), recently dropped men’s and women’s swimming and men’s and women’s golf because of small rosters. St. Olaf College in Northfield, even with a stable enrollment of about 3,000, dropped wrestling, a sport the MIAC no longer sponsors, for the same reason.

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“I think institutions will be faced with the dilemma of asking themselves, what can we continue to offer? What can we offer that will continue to attract students?” said St. Olaf Athletic Director Ryan Bowles, formerly an athletics administrator at Division 1 Maryland. “Many institutions rely on athletics for enrollment purposes. It certainly helps us here at St. Olaf, but we’re not reliant on athletics to hit our enrollment numbers. But I certainly worry about it.”

Verdugo believes football, even with shrinking youth participation numbers, will survive as an incentive to attract male students. Most coed MIAC schools have more women than men; Hamline’s student body is 63% women.

Still, shrinking enrollment suggests major changes ahead for college athletics, not all of them good.

“It would not surprise me if you see more schools move toward Division III, whether NAIA or potentially some D2 schools coming down, just because it’s still an opportunity for them to offer athletics maybe at a more affordable price and deliver that experience,” Verdugo said. “And you’ll have others that will say, ‘we’ll just consolidate our resources, we’re going to be good at these four sports or five sports’ or what have you. I can see that happening more often now than ever before.”