Spending time: Dickinson State focuses on improving athletic funding as Frontier Conference transition nears
Dickinson State is adamant it can compete athletically in the Frontier Conference. Financially, however, DSU's administration freely admits its athletic programs are at a major disadvantage.
When it comes to awarding financial aid and scholarships to student-athletes, DSU holds little comparison to its future Frontier counterparts.
After being a member of the Dakota Athletic Conference since 2000, DSU officially joins the Frontier in the 2012-13 school year.
University officials are well into the process of finalizing next school year's budgets, tweaking schedules and travel plans while boosters and staff members are focused on perhaps the most important task: improving
athletic scholarship totals.
"I think that our fundraising is a major thing for all of our athletics," said DSU men's basketball coach Ty Orton, who is also the Blue Hawk Booster Club coordinator. "That's got to be increased to help our athletics compete in the Frontier Conference."
Whether it's increasing scholarship dollars or adding funds to travel budgets, DSU knows its athletic department is in need of a financial lift.
Compared to other Frontier schools, DSU ranks last in terms of financial aid and scholarships awarded to the average student-athlete.
"For us to be successful, we're going to have to adjust to that," DSU athletic director Tim Daniel said. "Just like we have to adjust to the style of play, to the competitiveness of play in that league, we're going to have to adjust our recruiting efforts and our scholarship efforts to also be competitive."
DSU has little financial to aid give compared at Frontier schools
In-state and out-of-state tuition and fees at DSU are cheaper than nearly every institution in the Frontier. But in some cases, the university doesn't come close to equaling what those other schools -- especially the private institutions -- can award in scholarships and other financial aid.
In the 2010-11 school year, DSU awarded a total of $756,931 in athletically related student aid to 334 student-athletes, an average of $2,266 in scholarships and additional aid per participating athlete.
The Frontier's publically funded Montana University System schools awarded more in aid to student-athletes than DSU. Montana State-Northern awarded $817,775 for just 162 student-athletes, an average of $5,048 per student-athlete. Montana Western ($3,366 per athlete) and Montana Tech ($3,724) were the closest to DSU in average financial awards.
Because tuition is vastly higher at private institutions, such as the Frontier's Carroll College, Rocky Mountain College and the University of Great Falls (Mont.), those institutions do not have to abide by athletic scholarship standards set by the Montana University System, only those of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Their athletic programs are generally much better funded than the state schools.
In 2010-11, Rocky Mountain awarded an average of $9,140 to its 250 student-athletes. Great Falls checked in at $7,977 and Carroll at $6,178.
Westminster College, a private, non-football school in Salt Lake City, awarded an average of $2,189 per student-athlete in 2010-11. However, like many private institutions, Westminster provides what it refers to as merit aid based on a student's high school grades and ACT score. For next school year, those awards range from $5,000 to $11,000.
Westminster athletic director Shay Wyatt said, like DSU, his college is working to improve the amount of aid it provides to student-athletes.
"There's some areas we're trying to address, but scholarships for any institution is a constant challenge and a constant give and take," Wyatt said. "You try to maintain competitive programs without putting the institution in financial hardship. It's a constant balancing act."
A small part of the disparity between DSU and the Frontier schools comes from the ability of Frontier teams to award more scholarships. The Frontier is an NAIA Division I conference in basketball. The DAC, which dissolves completely after this school year, was a NAIA Division II conference. Division I allowed a limit of 11 scholarships while Division II's limit was six.
Orton, whose team did not work with the full limit of six scholarships even when it was a member of the DAC, said the scholarship differences matter.
"Those teams are fully funded," Orton said. "We're going against kids that we can give a certain amount to and they (the Frontier schools) just bury us with scholarship dollars."
Not only is DSU tasked with improving its scholarship funds, DSU President D.C. Coston said the athletic department's budget is undergoing changes because of increased travel for its athletic teams.
While the Blue Hawks have traditionally played Frontier Conference teams in the nonconference part of its season, far-away trips for what are now league games stand to put pressure on DSU's pocketbook.
Each year, the football team must travel to either Eastern Oregon or Southern Oregon. The basketball and volleyball teams will make annual trips to Westminster College in Salt Lake City and Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, which is on the Washington border.
"Financially, we've got to find ways to manage the travel and so on related to getting all the athletes to the various events and then being able to get them back so they miss class as little as possible so they can be successful as students, as well as athletes," Coston said.
Boosters showing initiative in fundraising efforts
Jace Schillinger gave everything he had to the DSU football program during his time as a player -- and he has almost every school rushing record to prove it.
Now, Schillinger is doing what he can to give back to the team that gave him so much.
Last year, the 30-year-old formed the Blue Hawk Touchdown Club aimed at raising scholarship funds for the DSU football team through donations from former football players. Schillinger said the Touchdown Club is similar to single-sport alumni organizations at the University of North Dakota, where he was an assistant coach, and the University of Montana, where both his father and brother played.
"The goal is to try and help them out. Try and get more scholarships going to the university, which will generate, hopefully, some better talent and more scholarships to where you can get more kids," Schillinger said.
Schillinger, who now lives in Baker, Mont., said he came to understand DSU's financial disadvantage during his time spent recruiting athletes as an assistant football coach at DSU and UND.
"It's not comparable right now. You're not comparing apples to apples when they go out there and compete in the Frontier," Schillinger said. "I figured, what can I do to try and be able to help and help them be able to compete in the Frontier?"
The Blue Hawk Touchdown Club is not affiliated with the Blue Hawk Booster Club and the DSU Alumni & Foundation. But at this point, there seems to be no animosity between fundraising groups because they're each striving toward a common goal.
"It's a whole group of people coming together to try to do the things that allow you to be successful," Daniel said. "More importantly, give an opportunity for the kids to go to school and work to get their degree. That's our first and foremost objective."
Mitch Kick, president of the Blue Hawk Booster Club, said the group is taking a different approach to fundraising than it had in the past.
Some old fundraising projects were dropped in favor of other events, such as Frontier Rendezvous, a raffle and banquet that raffled off 50 guns and an ATV among other items.
"The Rendezvous was the biggest fundraiser we've ever had, I believe," said Kick, adding the event held in March raised about $43,000, more than double the amount raised by the 2011 Spring Fling fundraising event it replaced.
In the past school year, Kick said the Blue Hawk Booster Club has raised about $263,000 for scholarships. He said it is about a 15 percent increase from the previous year.
Kick credits southwest North Dakota's strong economy and boosters with the knowledge of how DSU compares financially to the Frontier for the uptick in funds raised.
"Honestly, I can't say enough that the community as a whole has just stepped up," Kick said. "I think everybody kind of knows and everybody is really going out of their way. It's a good thing. We still have a long ways to go, but we're making strides in the right direction."