Small colleges find that adding football pays off in a lot of green, and more

Suburban Baltimore's Stevenson University spent $500,000 this year to create an intercollegiate team from scratch, largely as a means to fill the campus with tuition-paying men.
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 9:19 PM

IN STEVENSON, MD. Stevenson University was another small liberal arts school with a surplus of female students. Women outnumbered men 2 to 1, an extreme example of the imbalance that pervades higher education.

Then came football.

Stevenson spent $500,000 this year to create an intercollegiate team from scratch, largely as a means to fill the campus with tuition-paying men. The program has drawn 130 players, raising the male share of the freshman class from 34 to 39 percent in a single year at the 3,075-student university.

The suburban Baltimore school is one of at least a dozen small, private colleges in the United States that have added or rebuilt football programs in the past three years, usually with the dual purpose of feeding the bottom line and narrowing the gender gap.

For many small, regional colleges facing a bleak admissions landscape, the gridiron is a beacon of hope. The college-age population is leveling off. The economy is sluggish. Private colleges must offer ever-larger tuition discounts to fill the freshman class.

Male students are particularly scarce because of several factors, including higher dropout and incarceration rates. The national college population is 58 percent female. At private institutions, the gender gap is slightly larger.

There are few endeavors more collegiate and male than football. And the new Stevenson Mustangs collectively pay nearly $3 million in tuition and fees, more than enough to cover the program's annual operating cost, university leaders say. A $6 million, 3,500-seat stadium will be built with tax-exempt bonds to benefit both male and female sports teams.

"We're waiting to make history," said Alphonso Mayo, a 23-year-old Stevenson freshman from Baltimore who chose the school for its football program. "We want to do right by the school. We want to make them proud."

The team boards a bus at 6:15 a.m. four times a week, including Saturdays, for the six-mile trip from the residence halls on one campus to the practice field on another. The players lift weights on two other days.

It's an elaborate dry run: The Mustangs don't play their first competitive game until Sept. 3, 2011, a date printed on green armbands worn by every player.

Such is the transformative promise of football that 54 colleges have added or resumed programs since 2000, including Shenandoah and Christopher Newport universities in Virginia. Twenty-five institutions dropped it, typically because the teams were losing games or money, or both. Casualties include Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Colorado College. Two of the 25, including Gallaudet University in the District, changed their minds and resumed play.

More campus changes

Football is just the most visible evidence of a broader movement to bring more men through the gates.

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