Misericordia University announced in October that it would introduce football, bringing the total number of Division III teams at Misericordia to 23. We will be joining eight other Mid-Atlantic Conference (MAC) colleges and universities in fielding a football team. The MAC is one of the oldest athletic conferences in the country and will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year.
I have been pleasantly surprised by the knowledge area residents have about Division III football and college sports in general. They realize that no athletic scholarships are awarded in Division III and students who play football and other Division III sports must compete academically in order to get into college, and do well in class in order to continue to play and graduate on time. This has clearly been the case with most of the 242 Division III colleges and universities in the country which play football.
There is, however, understandable confusion about some of the distinctive differences between Division I and Division III institutions, particularly when it comes to expensive Division I sports programs like football. This misunderstanding, unfortunately, taints the perception of D-III ball. Spending on players in the 120 D-I programs that compete in the Football Bowl Subdivision of the NCAA grew 38 percent between 2002 and 2005. That amount is projected to continue to increase. These colleges and universities spend about $84,000 per athlete annually compared to only about $13,350 per non-varsity student - the amount most institutions of higher education spend per student.
What also may not be well known is that most scholar athletes at Division III schools tend to perform better academically in college than their non-varsity counterparts. Misericordia is no exception. While SAT scores for our incoming freshman students have risen by more than 40 points in the last two years alone, the grade point average for our student athletes has exceeded that of our other students. More than 100 MU varsity athletes attend the annual scholar athlete awards program every year, which means these students carry at least a 3.4 GPA.
College athletics, in particularly broad participatory sports like football, have an additional advantage of helping students to enter college and to do well in higher education. Every year there are 1.5 million high school students who will never attend college, despite having the necessary academic requirements, according to data collected by the Edwin Gould Foundation. Many of these same students also have the academic abilities that would qualify them for grants and low-cost loans if they entered college. More disheartening is the fact that fewer than 17 percent of African American and Latino male students will finish high school and go on to graduate from college. For some, however, the love of the game and the focus it requires in the classroom and on the field are often positive factors in encouraging a students' desire to go on to college and graduate.
While the United States ranks 15th among 27 developed countries in the percentage of students who earn a college degree, extracurricular activities like football can give minority and non-minority students alike the extra impetus to finish their degrees.
Contrary to popular belief, the graduation rate among college athletes, including football players, is higher than that of the student body. For instance, Misericordia enjoys an overall annual retention rate of 87 percent. A significant factor in obtaining this unusually high retention rate is our varsity student-athletes, who tend to excel in games and in the classroom.
These same college and university athletes also are in the forefront of serving their communities locally and abroad. Whether it is spending time with youngsters in public schools, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, or participating in overseas mission trips, student athletes at Misericordia and most other Division III schools strive to help those less fortunate.
Whether it is football or women's tennis, softball, or lacrosse, Division III athletics plays an important role in a high-quality educational experience. It helps retain students and encourages students who might not otherwise consider college to attend and earn a degree.
Michael A. MacDowell is president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa. Misericordia University's first football game is scheduled for the fall 2012 semester.