How public universities support athletics – and students – badly

How are America’s public universities supporting athletics?  Badly on a number of levels, according to a new report from the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Huffington Post.  The key finding here is that campuses are increasingly supporting sports by ramping up student fees, and usually without making money on the deal.

Schulman and Bowen, The Game of LifeThis is in many ways not news, at least not to anyone who’s read Bowen and Schulman’s ground-breaking, massively researched, and often devastating Game of Life (2002).  We know that the overwhelming majority of college and university sports programs either lose money or fail to make a profit, and that some touted benefits, like alumni donations, are seriously overstated.  The Chron/HuffPo study not only reminds us of these, but adds an important focus on student fees.

For instance, one key finding: “In the past five years, public universities pumped more than $10.3 billion in mandatory student fees and other subsidies into their sports programs,” a serious amount of money.  It’s also a rising amount:

The average athletic subsidy that these colleges and their students have paid to their athletic departments increased 16 percent during that time. Student fees, which accounted for nearly half of all subsidies, increased by 10 percent.

Defenders of college sports often point to enthusiastic fans who demand the games.  However, this seems to be quite different from reality at a number of institutions:

subsidy rates tend to be highest at colleges where ticket sales and other revenue are the lowest — meaning that students who have the least interest in their college’s sports teams are often required to pay the most to support them. [emphases added]

The study goes on to find that higher fees fall disproportionately on poorer student bodies.  “Many colleges that heavily subsidize [sports] also serve poorer populations than colleges that can depend more on outside revenue…”

Once more, defenders of big sports cite non-economic reasons.  One school’s leader argued that “the addition of a football program could yield ‘many intangible benefits,’ such as building a sense of community for students.”

So why does this matter?

To begin with, massive campus investments into sports that don’t pay off might exacerbate economic differences between institutions.  I’ve written previously about that often silent gap.

The growing schism between have and have-not colleges, and the reluctance of universities that rely heavily on subsidies to scale back their spending, has alarmed professors, presidents, and even college coaches, who are raising new questions about the long-term viability of major college athletics.

Note that the Chronicle can mention this in passing, as a given: “The growing schism between have and have-not colleges…”

When we’re increasingly worried about students completing their degrees, and some of us are concerned about rising income inequality in general, it seems dangerous to add to students’ financial burdens, especially when they are the least likely to be able to afford extra charges.

Moreover, when athletics do not add to, or even subtract from, an institution’s academic function, there are costs in a difficult financial environment.

The two major forms of subsidies, [David Hughes, Rutgers anthropologist] says, undermine universities in separate ways. Increases in student fees make college more expensive, while rising institutional support of athletics threatens the academic mission. “Add these things together,” he says, “and you have students paying more for a lower-quality education.”

Additionally, expanding or starting up athletic programs might appeal to some stakeholders, but reversing those decisions is extremely difficult.

Colleges have rarely dropped sports or moved to a lower, less-expensive, NCAA level in response to added financial pressures. Those few that have considered reducing their athletic commitment have faced a backlash.


Are we stuck with growing college sports, then?

Back in 2008-2011 I thought we might see spending decrease and regulation grow, what with the financial crisis and the series of high-profile athletics scandals.  Apparently I was wrong – so far.

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