One Way to Save Money? Cap Athletics Subsidies

The Washington Post recently identified capping athletics subsidies as one of eight ways to get higher education in better shape.  The article cites Knight Commission data and quotes Commission co-chairman William “Brit” Kirwan, Chancellor of the University System of Maryland:

“7. Cap athletic subsidies

Intercollegiate athletics undoubtedly add to the collegiate experience. But how much, and for whom?

Nine public universities in Virginia charged students more than $1,000 apiece in athletic fees this school year to cover the costs of their programs. The average fee has nearly doubled in 10 years.

Athletic costs are soaring as universities race to build bigger programs with higher profiles. A nationally televised football team is a mighty tool for extracting money from alumni and applications from wealthy out-of-state students.

Critics say the top division of the nonprofit National Collegiate Athletic Association increasingly resembles for-profit entertainment, with million-dollar coaches and ever-lengthening seasons. Some schools have only a small percentage of students engaged in athletics, and athletes only nominally engaged in education.

“You’re not providing students with the opportunity to play sports. You’re bringing students in to pay money to watch sports,” said Margaret Miller, a professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Virginia.

Ninety-seven schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision spent an average $84,446 per athlete on their athletic programs in 2008, while spending $13,349 per student on academics, according to a 2010 report by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

The notion of a profitable athletic program is largely a myth. A 2010 analysis of 99 public bowl-subdivision schools by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a Washington think tank, found 13 that broke even without subsidies. That analysis found the average athletic “tax,” mostly levied in added tuition or fees, increased from $395 per student in the 2004-05 academic year to $506 in 2008-09 among those schools.

“Institutions are paying coaches these astronomical salaries … and, for the most part, drawing down dollars that could go into the academic enterprise,” said William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and former president of the flagship state university. “And, let’s face it, College Park is one of them.”

Just-departed U-Md. football coach Ralph Friedgen earned about $2 million a year, more than any public university president.

Most colleges operate outside the bowl system, with smaller programs tailored for scholar-athletes who compete for love of the game.

But although such programs cost less, they also earn less. That means higher athletic fees. Schools with wealthy donors, including U-Va. offset the fees with private funds. Less affluent schools can’t. Ninety-five percent of revenue in the Christopher Newport University athletic program comes from fees, which total $1,147 per student.

Athletic spending follows a similar pattern at private institutions, where it is not a matter of public record.

Some reformers say colleges would moderate their own spending if the costs were publicized widely. A 2010 report by USA Today included a searchable database of programs

Others suggest that states could bar public colleges from supporting athletic programs with subsidies that total more than 5 percent of tuition revenue. (The average among bowl-subdivision schools is 8 percent.) Or, Congress could intervene.

For Kirwan and others, the biggest problem is the bowl system, an annual championship ritual that concentrates hundreds of millions of dollars within a small group of schools. Many sports fans, including President Obama, suggest ditching the bowl system in favor of traditional playoffs, with revenue shared equally by all.”