The role of athletics in academic institutions is troublesome. College sports result in scandal, misuse of funds, and strange priorities. They’re also a source of much pride and pleasure for alumni, and are arguably very important to fundraising efforts.

But most coverage of college athletics concentrates on basketball and football, and largely at certain very prominent schools.

This is a particular line of thinking to which I too fall victim. What the hell are college sports for? Except some vague ideas about creating a sense of community and appeals to weird alumni and corporate supporters, my understanding of college sports, and the structure behind it, was somewhat limited. But it turns out there’s a reason for minor sports too.

It’s sometimes a recruiting tool just to get rich kids in. According to an article by Kevin Kiley in Inside Higher Ed:

The push by Midwestern liberal arts colleges to add lacrosse programs is one of several tactics employed by these institutions in recent years to hold on to a demographic that presidents say is central to these institutions’ identities and bottom lines, particularly as the population shrinks and becomes more coveted by other types of institutions. Middle-class suburban students, who are not only able but willing to pay the high price for private education, used to be liberal arts colleges’ bread and butter. Now they’re increasingly lured to other types of institutions. Lacrosse is a weapon in the fight to keep them.

“We’re trying to compete more effectively for a smaller demographic,” said W. Kent Barnds, vice president for enrollment, communication, and planning at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., which added men’s and women’s lacrosse programs last year and is in its first season of competition.“We’re really trying to get more than our fair share of a shrinking demographic.”

“Shrinking demographic” is here a euphemism for “rich white students.” There are virtually no poor people who play lacrosse; creating a collegiate lacrosse team is a good way to ensure a steady stream of affluent students from families willing to pay the full cost of college. They’re happy to get a chance to pay their preferred sport in college, and they’ve got enough money so they don’t need scholarships.

These liberal arts schools, historically, used to be able to depend on local students. The lacrosse demographic is a shrinking one because such students are much more likely to go to college out-of-state. But now that college applications have gone national such schools often have trouble attracting students. They have even more trouble attracting students who can pay full tuition.

As colleges, especially rather mediocre ones in the Midwest, become increasingly tuition dependent, lacrosse students are a great revenue source.

“The demographic would suggest that there’s plenty of room for new programs,” Dave Webster, lacrosse coach at Dickinson College said to Kiley. “If a college can add 15 new males with little or no need for aid, that makes good business sense.”

How those 15 new males feel about shouldering their schools’ financial structure, however, is a little unclear. Just imagine the influence they can exert over campus once they recognize their power. [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer