Chapter 2: From Risk to Reinvention and Revival: Return on Athletics

by John P. Marsden, Ph.D.

Posted on October 03, 2018

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Risk is characterized by uncertainty – that an event may or may not happen – and undesirable outcomes or loss.

A recent survey found that academic leaders believe that campus climate, sexual assault, academic programs, and student behavior have been the greatest potential risks to their institutions in the past. The same leaders also believe that higher education’s business model – including enrollment trends, fiscal management, staffing, and tuition management – is the greatest risk for the future.1 Similarly, a number of higher education experts have lamented the financial struggles of many institutions.2 

Midway University was an at-risk institution in 2013. The institution faced financial challenges, including expenses that exceeded revenues, declining enrollments, and cash flow shortages. In fact, the institution borrowed several million dollars in summer 2013 to meet payroll and vendor expenses.3 Midway University also suffered from an identity crisis. The institution included a daytime Women’s College but added coeducational undergraduate online degree completion programs for working adults in 2006 to help sustain a declining women’s college market. The online programs grew exponentially and quickly surpassed traditional enrollments. The culture of the organization shifted, leading to hires that did not complement the original mission and values of the institution. As a result, Midway University was sometimes perceived as a for-profit organization. Not surprisingly, Midway University faced an uncertain future. 

Midway University faced an uncertain future.  

Moving from Risk to Reinvention
Midway University methodically put its financial house in order by reducing expenses, increasing revenue through expanding graduate programs and international partnerships, collecting unpaid tuition, and finalizing an agreement to refinance all debt. The Women’s College posed a larger problem to solve. 

The Board of Trustees believed the core of the institution was the daytime Women’s College and desired a more even balance of daytime, online undergraduate, and graduate students. However, the Women’s College had waned to 266 students by 2015 and included a 200-acre campus with a working horse farm that had been neglected for many years. Current research at the time also indicated that only 2% of high school seniors were attracted to single-sex institutions.4 In addition, revenues from the nontraditional programs could not continue to offset significant losses in the Women’s College. Midway University had to do something different or would remain at-risk. 

Midway University has a history of reinvention. Founded in 1847 by Dr. L. L. Pinkerton as the Kentucky Female Orphan School, the original mission of the institution was to serve disadvantaged young women and prepare them for careers as teachers. Although the institution was a school and not an orphanage, the term “orphan school” was used to appeal to philanthropists. In 1942, the Kentucky Female Orphan School was renamed Midway Junior College. The Board of Trustees voted to add junior college offerings in order to build enrollment and abandoned the term “orphan school,” which had become controversial. In 1978, Midway Junior College became Midway College in anticipation of adding four-year programs. The college was operating at a loss and transitioned to a baccalaureate degree granting institution in the 1980s to remain relevant. In 2006, the institution added online degree completion programs to strengthen its financial position. 

By 2016, it was time to reinvent Midway University once again.  

By 2016, it was time to reinvent Midway University once again. Although there are many positive outcomes associated with attending a women’s college,5 the Midway University Trustees unanimously and boldly approved full coeducation for financial reasons during the May board meeting. Shortly following a public announcement, St. Catharine College, a nearby private institution facing closure due to financial instability, contacted Midway University about the possibility of absorbing some of their men’s athletic teams for the fall 2016 semester. Midway University agreed to this unanticipated request and began a risky and rapid reinvention. 

Moving from Reinvention to Revival
Ratings agency Standard and Poor’s recently reported “opportunities exist for the [higher education] sector if it can shed its reputation for being slow to change.”6 Midway University was not slow to act. In fact, the institution had to implement its latest reinvention in less than three months. 

Midway University immediately sought approval from SACSCOC for a substantive change in mission and identification as a teach-out site for St. Catharine College. The institution also sought approval from the River States Conference (NAIA) to launch men’s athletic teams in baseball, basketball, golf, and soccer. The institution had to leverage capital for athletic operating budgets, the hiring of coaches and adjunct faculty, furniture in residence halls, and additional food needs. Co-curricular programming was redesigned to appeal to both men and women. Most urgently, residence hall rooms were reconfigured from private and double rooms to double and triple rooms (as they were originally designed) with input from the local fire marshal. The housing policy was also relaxed to encourage off-campus living. Midway University took a chance that students would enroll at the institution, and they did. 

The institution sought approval from the River States Conference (NAIA) to launch men’s athletic teams in baseball, basketball, golf, and soccer.  

In August 2016, Midway University welcomed the largest incoming daytime class in the history of the institution, attracting more women than anticipated as well as 105 men and women from St. Catharine College. Enrollment in the daytime programs increased from 266 in fall 2015 to 432 in fall 2016. Enrollment increased again to 488 in fall 2017 and to 571 in fall 2018. Along with graduate student enrollment, undergraduate online programs, and dual credit enrollment, the overall headcount was 1,668 in fall 2018. 

Return on Athletics
Extracurricular activities outside the classroom are vital to the development of the whole student. Athletic programs help students focus on health, exercise, and nutrition and foster values such as integrity, respect, dedication, discipline, teamwork, and leadership. Many student-athletes develop life-long friendships with other team members and coaches. Teams are often tasked with service projects and make worthwhile contributions to the local community. Many students earn an education even if their initial intention for attending college was to play a sport. Institutions that are permitted to offer athletic scholarships make it possible for others who are not able to afford college to enroll. Long-term research results indicate that former student-athletes donate time and money more frequently than non-athletes and tend to get better jobs with better pay.7 

Athletic programs help students focus on health, exercise, and nutrition and foster values such as integrity, respect, dedication, discipline, teamwork, and leadership.  

Due to high interest in sports teams, athletics can fuel enrollment. In spring 2016, Midway University sponsored eight athletic teams for 92 women. Following coeducation and the launch of additional teams, the number of students participating in athletics surged to 260 in fall 2016 and 340 in fall 2017. By fall 2018, Midway University sponsored 20 athletic teams, and the number of student athletes exceeded 400. Such growth yields tuition if discounting is controlled. The increase in revenue from athletics made it possible for Midway University to offer raises to employees in 2018 for the first time in five years. 

Due to high interest in sports teams, athletics can fuel enrollment.  

Athletic programs also heighten university branding, visibility, and vibrancy. The tiny, quiet Women’s College of the past became a coeducational hub of activity almost overnight. The Midway University men’s baseball team won the conference championship in its inaugural year; women’s golf won the conference championship in 2016, 2017, and 2018; and women’s softball qualified for the NAIA National Tournament for the first time in the institution’s history. Two coaches were named Coaches of the Year, the Athletic Director was named AD of the Year in 2017, and the Sports Information Director was named SID of the Year in 2018. For the first time in the institution’s history, Midway University was named an NAIA Champions of Character Five Star Institution at the Gold Level. 

Challenges of the Return
Campus data collection efforts revealed that Midway University’s revival was not perfect. Once Midway University announced coeducation in summer 2016, the institution relaxed a housing policy that had required student-athletes to live on campus. Even though many students had requested a release from this requirement in the past, a number of women did not want to move off campus in anticipation of the men’s arrival. In addition, there was not sufficient time for some students to make alternative housing arrangements before the fall term began. As a result, private and double rooms were converted to triples, and the institution rented several apartments off campus to accommodate a surge in housing requests. Despite several communications from Residence Life staff, some students felt misled and surprised by the sudden changes, while others felt communication was poor.8 Nevertheless, retention from fall 2016 to spring 2017 was over 90%. With ongoing growth, housing remains a critical priority on campus. 

The number of sports teams increased from eight in spring 2016 to 20 in fall 2018. Such rapid growth led to competition for space in the student center – a building that only includes one gym. Scheduling practices and games for various teams was a challenge. As a result, it was not uncommon to see baseball players hitting balls in an equine barn or archery team members practicing on the tennis courts. To address the space limitations, Midway University launched a short-term, capital campaign to build a field house with an auxiliary gym, coaches’ offices, additional locker rooms, and a weight room, as well as a new baseball stadium. Unlike most campaigns, Midway University is not building so students will come; the institution is building so they will stay. Funds have been raised, and construction is anticipated in late 2018 and 2019. 

Some women believed that there was a greater emphasis on adding men’s sports even though the institution added women’s teams too and now offers an equal number of men’s and women’s teams. In addition, the equine students believed a new baseball stadium would take away valuable pasture land.9 Yet, 70 acres of the campus are already devoted to pastures for the equine program. 

Perhaps the greatest challenge regarding the reinvention of Midway University was the balancing of athletics and academics.  

With such rapid growth and the introduction of coeducation, Midway University proactively reviewed security services and procedures. All security staff are former police officers and provide around-the-clock surveillance. During peak periods, the office includes two security staff. The generosity of a donor made it possible for Midway University to install cameras in all public interior and exterior campus spaces, as well as a keyless entry system. 

Perhaps the greatest challenge regarding the reinvention of Midway University was the balancing of athletics and academics. The number of student athletes greatly exceeds non-athletes in the daytime programs; the weekly academic schedule was adjusted to accommodate late afternoon practices; and student athletes must make alternative arrangements when classes or exams are missed for games. Some may argue that the rapid expansion of athletics to drive enrollment contradicts the purpose of the institution. However, student athletes are consistently reminded they are students first and athletes second and collectively posted a cumulative GPA of 3.12 for the 2017-2018 academic year. Academic Affairs was patient about the allocation of resources during the reinvention but are now reaping the benefits of additional faculty and investments in faculty development. 

From at-risk to revival, Midway University managed to reinvent itself, took some significant risks, and has sustained momentum. But the biggest challenge to the return on athletics will be how the institution continues to manage its reinvention so that it does not succumb to risk again. 

My thanks to colleagues Ellen Gregory, Rusty Kennedy, and Leah Rice at Midway University for their review of this chapter. 


1Rick Seltzer, “Report on Colleges’ Ability to Handle Reputational Risk,” Inside Higher Ed, January 18, 2018, 

2Rick Seltzer, “Days of Reckoning,” Inside Higher Ed, November 13, 2017, 

3Russ Brown, “Smart Strategies at Midway University,” The Lane Report, May 14, 2018, 

4Lorraine Ash and Alesha Williams Boyd, (2012, August 17). “Women’s Colleges Struggle to Keep Identity and Enrollment,” USA Today, August 17, 2012, 

5Women’s College Coalition, The Truth About Women’s Colleges, June 2014, 

6Adam Harris, “Outlook for Higher Ed in 2018 is Bleak Rating Agency Says,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 23, 2018, 

7Kevin Kniffin, “High School Athletes Gain Lifetime Benefits,” The New York Times, October 22, 2014, 

8Sarah Ladd and Sarah Landers, “Admitting Men Boosted Midway University, and Changed Its Culture; Some Women Weren’t Happy, But Have Adjusted,” Midway Messenger, Mary 31, 2018,