Opportunity Gained: Athletic Programs at Two-year Colleges
By: John Hogan
National Park College has a culture in which student voice is both heard and heeded. We follow a detailed process of gathering aspirational data from our students—current, future, and past—on what they believe NPC can become. Early in this process it became evident that athletic programs were strongly desired by our current and prospective students. This included students from both traditional and non-traditional age groups. The comments made often referenced whether NPC could be a ‘real college’ without providing opportunities for student athletes.
According to their website, the first sentence in the mission statement of the National Junior College Athletic Association indicates:
“It is the mission of the NJCAA to foster a national program of athletic participation in an environment that supports equitable opportunities consistent with the educational objectives of member colleges.”
This sentence accurately characterizes the academic opportunities, workforce development, access to higher education, and opportunities for student-athletes to continue to stretch their limits through competition. I have been very impressed with NJCAA athletes in my short exposure and will attempt to express the benefits of community colleges offering athletic programs to their students.
Student Athletics at National Park College, Arkansas
In the fall of 2016, National Park College’s Nighthawks basketball teams took the floor for the first time. This was the start of a larger vision in response to students’ input on what NPC needed to become. The Nighthawk mascot had been named after a robust and wide-open process. The men and women started as club teams during the 2016-17 year, then joined the NJCAA before the start of the 2018 basketball season.
In December 2018, National Park College announced an expansion into the baseball,
softball, and cross-country realms. The first seasons of baseball and softball, while
promising, were prematurely ended by the COVID 19 pandemic. Student interest in these
athletic programs remain high. NPC is considering further expansion of its student
Pandemic aside, our short tenure in the world of intercollegiate athletics has provided some valuable insights into our future as a comprehensive community college. The advantages to the colleges are many—a lifetime connection from alums to their schools; a greater variety of philanthropic doors; publicity that exceeded our expectations; a wider field of students (not just student athletes) to enroll at NPC; increased media presence; and, most importantly, the increase in opportunities for our students to excel and grow.
Consequently, our first and best reason for investing in student athletics is because our students asked us to do it.
The introduction of athletics has expanded NPC’s reach and circle of influence. It has put us in front of alumni, donors, and others who never would have known NPC existed. Each sport has its own unique circle and its own unique sources of support. This provides NPC with openings to engage in relationships with a wider circle of prospective students, donors, parents, advertisers, and community leaders.
Athletics has emerged in tandem with social media. In short, NPC’s social media metrics prove this beyond any doubt. Athletics reaches across boundaries! The attention that our student athletes draw has greatly increased our social media engagements. Each time we add a sport we experience this growth. Photos of Nighthawks have been on the front page of the local sports section numerous times, and the competitions have brought visitors to our campus as well. Prospective students, parents, high school counselors, donors, and community leaders all view NPC in a different light because of Nighthawk athletics. NPC tracks the news mentions and social media interactions annually and quantifies the advertising value as well. The value of advertising pre-COVID nearly exceeded our actual expenses for athletics. In future years I expect this will occur routinely.
Athletics provides NPC with an opportunity to expand its student diversity and the diversity of its larger community. Athletics more easily crosses cultural, ethnic, and racial boundaries than almost any other linkage. NPC’s student body enjoys healthy diversity, and the addition of athletic programs enhances this strength.
NPC has been able to increase its fundraising through athletics by finding donors
who otherwise would have no reason to connect with the college. Our donor population
has grown because of athletics, and I remain confident that future philanthropic support
will become even more significant and be continually invested in the success of NPC’s
students. The “Nighthawk Nation” to which students proudly belong also extends through
our service area and our community. Our entire service area which provides exceptional
support to NPC is as much a part of the “Nation” as the athletes.
The greatest benefit of student athletics is the positive influence it has on our students—student athletes and students who are not athletes. It has provided them with academic opportunities in many cases that would not have been available, and certainly not nearby. Many Arkansas students leave the state to participate in NJCAA sports, and now NPC provides the option for many of those students to stay here. Moreover, athletics has attracted students from all over Arkansas and, in some cases, outside the state. This is unusual for a community college whose service area does not border another state. When we talk with our students, nearly all the student athletes tell us they would not be at NPC if not for athletics. Most state that they would not have attended college at all!
Many of NPC’s students are simply fantastic athletes. Some are fantastic students! I have seen some of the finest fundamental performances on the court and field from our student athletes, and by students from our partner schools. NJCAA has a different flavor than NCAA athletics in my opinion—I suspect it is because students are continuing to exercise their labor of love. That love of their sport is manifest when they take the practice field, game court, classroom, or other venue. I must work to contain my pride when a Nighthawk student gives her or his heart on the court. Athletics appeal to our emotions in a very unusual and special way, and it is this emotional diversity that is the fabric of the NJCAA experience.
Our student athletes are involved in community service, provide camps to young athletes, serve as ambassadors for NPC and community colleges, all the while growing their capabilities that will undoubtedly benefit them in the long run.
NPC’s students have opportunities to gain experience and value through athletic opportunities. This conversation is an important one for the future of our College. I am proud of the nation’s nearly 60,000 student athletes and 512 member colleges in sports ranging from basketball and football to ice hockey and wrestling. I’m proud of NPC’s membership in NJCAA. I am also grateful for the value it adds to our institution and the opportunities it extends to our students.