Despite what some may argue or what some statistics might suggest, it is not that Eastern Kentucky University values athletics over academics.
On the contrary, investing in our student-athletes — who represent a relatively small percentage of our overall student population but also make up our most diverse student demographic — is a sound financial and institutional investment.
The return on that investment in these student-athletes more than justifies the resources expended.
Consider a few statistics relative to our Division I athletic programs at EKU: our student-athlete minority population nearly triples that of our student body minority population at 31 percent to 11 percent. Further, the student-athlete retention and graduation rate are nearly double our non-student- athlete population.
We have 141 student-athletes on full scholarship. Considering we have 360 student-athletes on our Richmond campus, the bulk are either walk-ons or are given partial stipends, meaning these student-athletes pay their own way to come to EKU while contributing substantially to our overall sustainability.
These 219 student-athletes were responsible for nearly $4 million in tuition and fees last year alone.
But on top of the financial return from having these student-athletes on our campus — and the social benefit that accrues to all of us in having an educated populace — consider the collateral impact our athletics programs have for good in myriad unquantifiable ways.
Last month, I traveled to Terre Haute, Ind., to see the EKU Colonels compete in the NCAA Cross Country National Championship. Our men's squad had just come off its first-ever Southeast Regional crown, defeating perennial powerhouses like Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke, Clemson and North Carolina.
Where else can EKU go toe-to-toe with schools with much larger student populations and significantly more resources and compete to be the very best in the entire country? I assure you there is extreme value in that for our university and its 16,000-plus outstanding students.
Moreover, athletics is a catalyst for social interaction among students, alumni and friends. The value of athletic participation goes much deeper than games won or championships earned or dollars accumulated. The branding and public relations associated with a good athletic program far outweigh the cost.
In the final analysis, an investment in student-athletes is about giving access to post-secondary education to men and women who might not otherwise have that opportunity. We will never be apologetic for providing access and opportunity for students to succeed at Eastern Kentucky University.
As is the case with all of our scholarships, those awarded to student-athletes provide countless men and women the chance to attend our institution who otherwise may not be able to do so.
At issue: Dec. 6 Herald-Leader editorial, "Athletics are valued over academics at Kentucky colleges"
Michael T. Benson is president of Eastern Kentucky University.