University of St. Thomas leaders say the school’s big jump from Division III to Division I athletics won’t just bode well for their sports teams — it will help increase their academic and recruitment reach and attract more donors.

The St. Paul university received approval from the NCAA earlier this month for its sports teams to start Division I play in the 2021-2022 season. The Tommies will join the University of Minnesota as the state’s only full-fledged Division I programs.

St. Thomas officials are high on their school’s future.

“This isn’t [just] an athletic move, this is part of a strategic long-term … move for the university academically,” said Al Cotrone, the school’s vice president of enrollment. “I think this is just part and parcel of that continued trajectory for us.”

With the prestige of Division I, officials expect to recruit more students and athletes from faraway states over the next five years. Currently, the school’s typical incoming class of students is about three-fourths Minnesotan, Cotrone said.

President Julie Sullivan said she wants to see those numbers shift to where the average incoming class of students is closer to 65% Minnesotan and 35% nonresident. And she wants the nonresident population to be more diverse, she said, noting that most of the school’s out-of-state students come from Wisconsin.

St. Thomas has already seen its student population grow in recent years with the addition of civil, electrical and mechanical engineering programs. Leaders expect it will swell more when the university launches its nursing school.

“What this sports move gives us is the ability to select our class from a bigger pool of applicants,” Sullivan said.

That’s what North Dakota State University experienced after its sports teams jumped from Division II to Division I in 2004, President Dean Bresciani said. The university soon became the school of choice for North Dakota high school graduates and began reaching more students from out of state who became interested by its heightened athletics profile, he added.

“Some of our biggest feeder states are Florida and California and Texas. We wouldn’t normally be on the radar screens of students in those states … if it weren’t for the national visibility of the athletics program,” Bresciani said.

Fundraising also increased “dramatically” in the years following North Dakota State’s move to Division I, Bresciani said, from about $9 million per year when he took office in 2010 to “in excess of $60 million a year now.” He credits the school’s sports reputation and research productivity for the “extraordinary jump.”

Sullivan expects more donor cash will flow into St. Thomas’ coffers in the coming years, as current donors are excited about the future of athletics and new ones may soon show attention. Any increase in athletics fundraising will likely result in more funding for academics, she said.

“Maybe they come in one door but then they get interested in the university from a holistic perspective and they give to more than one particular area of the university,” Sullivan said.

In the long run, Sullivan believes the school’s Division I status will foster a greater sense of pride among students and alumni.

“I think this move will really help us develop some new traditions around school spirit that will be very attractive to our students, and I think they’ll lead the way in helping us develop those new traditions,” she said.