Recruit & Retain (Lebanon Valley College)

Executing a 'Power Play'

In 1999, Lebanon Valley College (LVC) in Annville, PA, hosted their inaugural season of men’s ice hockey. Our team has seen its share of success on the ice, including just last season by going 26-6-1 and progressing to the American Collegiate Hockey Association Division I National Championship Tournament.

But as beneficial as the results have been on the ice, LVC has reaped even more rewards outside the rink. As a result, this fall the college doubled down on our hockey programs. The men’s team rejoined the NCAA as a Division III program, and we also launched a women’s ice hockey program.

Why? Because it paid huge dividends in growing our potential applicant pool.

Athletics Meet Academics

At a small, private liberal arts college like Lebanon Valley College, athletics are tremendously important. About 30-35 percent of our freshman class will be recruited as student athletes. Whether it’s tennis, cross-country, football or any other sport, there’s a strong likelihood that athletics entered into their decision.

The addition of a niche sport like women’s ice hockey made LVC an option for 20 high school girls who might not have even considered us before. The sport is important to them and they want the opportunity to continue playing at the next level.

There are multiple factors that ultimately determine where a student will decide to enroll. They’re largely the same factors for every student, but they vary tremendously in their order of importance.

While it’s clear that athletics are important to these students, recruiting students to a Division III program requires a heightened focus on academics as well. Coaches are sure to talk about grades and academic achievement in their first conversation with a recruit. After all, nearly every student athlete at this level of competition will be going pro in something other than his or her sport.

Staying the Course

The outcomes of our student athletes make this a reliable model. Being a member of a team helps acclimate them to college. Student athletes quickly learn mechanisms and skills for effective time management as they balance academic work and a rigorous practice and competition schedule. Despite the additional obligations, Lebanon Valley College actually retains more athletes from freshman to sophomore year than the general student body population.

Historically, Lebanon Valley College has recruited regionally, with a large percentage of the student body traveling a relatively small radius from home. In the first year of the women’s program, we have athletes from California, New York and Canada, a fact that feeds into another institutional goal of becoming more geographically diverse. It’s a win-win for athletics and academics.

Having 26 collegiate programs at a small school like ours speaks to our interest in wanting a lot of student athletes, but that also means we have 26 head coaches who to some extent act as extensions of our admissions counselors. With so many different individuals working toward similar goals, it requires regular communication.

Putting Education First

A coach must recruit not only for different positions, but also for different academic years. Recruiting three goalies in the same year means that at least one of those players won’t see much ice time and can get discouraged. The most important thing is having each athlete walk across the commencement stage and leave the college with a degree, rather than recruiting him or her to a situation that was doomed from the beginning.

Many private colleges will no doubt continue to leverage athletics as part of their recruitment strategy, meaning new programs will continue to pop up, ranging from niche to obscure. Since our announcement, another school in our conference has announced that they too will be adding women’s ice hockey. Another announced the creation of beach volleyball.

While the trend is sure to continue, schools will continue to differentiate themselves through their academic prowess. Our professors benefit from receiving highly motivated and competitive students in the classroom as well as the playing field.

If you talk to any of our coaches, they’ll tell you that wins and losses are important, but academics are still the reason athletics exist and why we exist as an institution. So long as that mindset stays true for everyone on campus, student athletes get to continue playing the sport they love as they prepare to live a life of purpose.

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Authors

Edwin R. Wright is vice president of enrollment management at Lebanon Valley College.

Don Parsons is the head coach of the Lebanon Valley College men's ice hockey team.

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