Sacrificing College Quality On The Altar Of Athletic Spending

Athletic success can increase athletic donations, but for schools who want a shortcut to success, it rarely translates into academic progress.

For most schools, some evidence points to an increase in donations from athletic success. However, those donations go toward athletics programs. And, to the extent that fundraising focuses on new athletic facilities, it can crowd out funds for academics. It’s difficult to get alumni excited about new equipment for the physics department when the university president wants a football stadium.

The poster boy for success is Notre Dame: a strong academic program and strong (independent) athletic program. Yet, for every Notre Dame, a dozen schools seek athletic success, but only gain subpar academic performance and higher student fees and tuition. Boise State Universityhas achieved notoriety for its football prowess, but its four-year graduation rate is 11 percent, and its six-year rate is 38 percent. It has remained in or near the bottom 150 colleges on Forbes’ Top Colleges list, along with many other schools striving for prestige through sports.

Proponents of college athletics dismiss the criticism, and most athletic directors say that athletic and academic fundraising isn’t a zero-sum game. Success in sports, the argument goes, promotes the university’s reputation and attracts students. That holds for some powerhouse universities such as Ohio State (whose revenues outpace spending), but universities in conferences such as the ACC or MAC levy mandatory athletic fees on students, which can approach $1,000 per year.  Athletics at Kent State University receive a 77 percent subsidy. Eastern Illinois University operates with a subsidy approaching 73 percent. In 2013, according to USA Today, 154 universities operate their athletic programs with at least half the funding from subsidies. The subsidies come from student fees, direct and indirect institutional support, and state money. However the ratios, students and taxpayers cover the vast majority of athletic spending.

University missions differ, and one can’t expect a Big 10 university to act like a regional university. However, it’s improper for the regional university to act like an SEC powerhouse and subvert an academic mission to the altar of the athlete.

Donations for athletic projects, moreover, tend to consume other funds. The recreation centers, stadiums, and other infrastructure gives a campus grand buildings, but maintenance and upkeep are overlooked. Those expenses fall on the students, regardless of the administration promising student fees will not be used in such a manner. In 2012, for instance, Ohio University announced plans to build a multipurpose center with an indoor football field for practice use. Though officials vowed it would be paid for by donations, an $800,000 shortfall prompted the administration to allocate funds from the student general fee to finance the project.

Universities advertise such projects as sources of civic pride — and it doesn’t come cheap. In 2010, the University of Akron built a $60 million stadium, while Colorado State University aims for a $220 million stadium to be built by 2016 (with half the funding raised through private donations). Such anecdotes are numerous. As grandiose athletics projects provide tangible examples of university presidents taking action on campus, students realize they have no input on how their money is spent and benefit little from them.

Increased spending on athletics isn’t always harmful to universities. Some evidence shows that a spillover effect holds, rather than a crowding out effect. For the majority of college students, however, university desires for athletic success hold some blame for rising student fees and tuition. Universities attempting to improve their quality, rigor, and prestige should realize that students with less debt and more knowledge promote their image better than a trophy on a dusty shelf.