End Student Subsidies for College Athletics

Hey, Wahoo soccer team, congratulations on winning the national championship this year! We're proud of you. Now, figure out how to make your team financially self-supporting and stop dunning the general student population.

Hey, Wahoo soccer team, congratulations on winning the national championship this year! We’re proud of you. Now, figure out how to make your team financially self-supporting and stop dunning the general student population for your most excellent college experience.

by James A. Bacon

House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, is intimately acquainted with the high and rising cost of higher education in Virginia. His two oldest have graduated from Longwood University and James Madison University, and he has two high-schoolers on the way. Not surprisingly, he describes himself as “stressed and anxious” about the increasing cost of higher education.

Unlike most of us, Cox is in a position to do something about it. In a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed, he said that he plans introduce legislation this year that will place caps on mandatory non-educational student fees at Virginia universities.

Student fees are only one factor driving up the rising cost of higher education, but they are the fastest-growing factor. Mandatory fees unrelated to education now represent one-third of total tuition and fees, or about $3,500 per year on average, Cox says. That’s up 99% since 2003. Writes Cox:

These fees are used to pay for a number of functions, but a significant portion is used to fund intercollegiate athletics. Only 3 percent of Virginia students play intercollegiate sports, but student fees fund approximately 69 percent of expenditures in athletic programs at Virginia’s four-year schools. In other words, non-athletes and their parents are paying about two-thirds of the cost of intercollegiate athletics. …

Athletic programs are an important part of the college experience. Virginia is fortunate to have competitive college athletic programs that make students and alumni proud. But we simply cannot ask students who will never play a minute of college sports to bear such a disproportionate share of the costs associated with these programs.

I totally agree, but I’d go farther. Male football and basketball programs pay their own way. No other sports program does. If students want to participate in volleyball, soccer, tennis and the like as part of their college experience, let them pay for it themselves. I studied Korean martial arts at the University of Virginia many moons ago. Everybody kicked in to pay an instructor to drive down from Northern Virginia to teach us. We didn’t think anything about it. Obviously, traveling sports teams with full-time coaches would cost a lot more. Perhaps they should emulate the non-profit soccer and Little League programs here in Henrico County (and many other places) that raise money from parents, bequests, fund-raisers ticket sales and the like.

Once upon a time, it may have been appropriate for colleges and universities to pass on the cost of college athletics to the general student population. But Boards of Trustees simply have to re-think priorities when the cost of education becomes unaffordable to most. Why should one student be compelled to rack up additional student debt to subsidize the amateur athletic experience of another? And not to go all Al Sharpton on the issue, but let’s consider the social justice ramifications. How many  poor and minority students participate in lacrosse, golf, rowing, swimming & diving and field hockey? Is it fair to ask poor and minority students to subsidize the college experience of preppy white students?

Runaway student fees deserve a much closer look. Personally, I’d give public universities ten years to put their athletic programs on a self-funding basis and phase out subsidies from student fees entirely. But Kirk Cox’s proposal, though modest, is a good start.

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15 responses to “End Student Subsidies for College Athletics

  1. Actually I’d like to see some proof that college football and basketball pay for themselves …

    I don’t think they do except at possibly one or two places.

    further – the financials are often embedded in such a way that it’s hard to actually separate out the various sports programs.

    Finally – the ones that supposedly pay for themselves are a perversion of higher ed – across the board – they have become de facto farm teams for the pros – and it’s worse than that – because now it reaches into many high schools that function as de facto farm teams for the colleges – and in high school – significant taxpayer resources are directed at these programs – often taking money away from academic needs…

    don’t blame the colleges. It’s US. we’re the ones that want the big 10 sports… the whole enchilada … we’re the ones that want the General Assembly to shower tax dollars on higher ed and for the govt to provide “affordable” loans that the Universities rely on when raising fees… as long as the loan covers it…

    the thing is about all of this is we want to blame someone for it – but we often just refuse to see our own actions in demanding it and so the colleges just find it easy to meet the demand.

    I would posit that very few sports at very few Universities actually pay for all of their expenses – including coach/”professors”, stadiums, parking, etc.

    and the “non-paying’ sports – the truth is they probably consume a tiny fraction of the student fees… compared to football and basketball.

    we say we want one thing – but in reality we can’t seem to make the hard choices so we just blame others.

  2. I think Larry’s point is well-taken. Most of us want our local colleges or alma mater to have football teams in bowl games; have both mens and womens basketball in the elite eight; have a recognized theater or orchestra program; and on and on. Yet, we don’t want to pay higher charges for kids and grandkids in college. And, if the total costs of taxpayer subsidies for these programs were made public, I think lots of people on the left and right would gripe, perhaps, for different reasons, but complain loudly anyway.

    More disclosure is needed. Cost of programs; professor and administrator compensation; teaching loads versus compensation; etc. Then we can have a sensible discussion.

  3. I have to relate something that happened locally. In the locker room, one guy came up behind another guy, put him in a choke-hold and told him to say “uncle”. He did not, lost consciousness, fell, hit his head on a locker and got a concussion.

    None of this was reported despite state law that requires it. The school said that their handbook said it could be handled at the school level.

    The ensuing “discussion” quickly gravitated to the point of view that sports teams at high schools are “different” than the general population and, in effect, the rules are different.

    Several of the kids on the team actually came out publicly and said that it was an internal issue with the football program and not subject to outside review.

    Here’s my take: This is what we are teaching kids in sports programs today. We see it in pro sports. we see it in college sports. And now we’re seeing it in high schools.

    it has absolutely nothing to do with academics. It actually harms academics in several different and real ways.

    so we have this whole separate “appendage” in our schools – like a separate ancillary part of the schools with it’s own environment, funding, culture and rules – and ..

    we’re teaching this to kids.. and what we are saying in large part – is that academics is second fiddle to sports and so our kids – think it’s more important to be involved in sports than being a top-notch academic student.

    Even GOOD High School now have abysmal participation rates in the tougher variants of AP and IB. The number of kids who actually graduate from High School these days that are truly ready for a college major in a major hard science – like math or chemistry or engineering – are miniscule with horrendous wash-out rates.

    We’ve chosen this path – ourselves.

    We’ve told the kids – “stay away from the tough course” and put a high value on the performance on team sports…

    So the really serious immigration issue – we should all be more worried about is that the uneducated immigrants willing to do jobs we won’t do but the HB1 visas for foreign students to come to this country taking the higher skill jobs that our own kids don’t qualify for – because they steered away from robust academics – and when they chose a college – they wanted a “sports” school that offered “generic” type non-hard-science degrees.

    You can’t design and build drones that fly into hurricanes/tornados or patrol pipelines/power lines, or GPS crop dusting, or follow ocean currents, find downed airliners – with a degree in psychology or music appreciation…

    4 years and 30,000 in debt and a part-time job in starbucks… but they can cheer on their Alma mater on weekends…

    and we want to blame the colleges…

  4. As a Tennessee Vol ,I was a “bit taken aback” when I enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Amsterdam and found that there were no university sponsored sports teams. If you wanted to cheer for a team the local “football” team,Ajax, was about all there was.
    There is no doubt that Division 1 athletics are out of control. The big conferences,as the SEC,have there own cable network.As much as I like watching the Vols play Florida and Alabama ,the sports are out of control.Do these programs really give the taxpayers something to identify with to make it easier to use taxes to support the academic program? What would fall in New England be without Harvard/Yale.
    These are almost cultural question as much as academic. I can never imagine American universities following the Dutch model,but something approaching the Division three model .It might be worth a shot.

    • there’s also a related irony and that is the purpose and justification of regulation.

      I keep hearing Bacon talk about Uber and those nasty urban land-use regs… etc… but would a simple regulation that says something like – sports programs cannot be staffed with people who get State Retirement. They have to be totally and completely funded from their own separate funding sources with none coming from alumni unless through a totally separate channel not affiliated with the University?

      Oh.. and even MIT has a football sports program – but look at it:

      Date Opponent Result

      Sep 6 Pomona-Pitzer W, 28-18 Final
      Sep 13 Becker College W, 38-14 Final
      Sep 27 Salve Regina University * W, 48-26
      Oct 3 at Curry College * W, 49-20 Final
      Oct 18 at Nichols College * W, 52-20 Final
      Oct 25 Western New England University * W, 35-34 Final
      Nov 1 at Endicott College * W, 34-29 Final
      Nov 8 at Maine Maritime * W, 55-37 Final
      Nov 15 U.S. Coast Guard Academy * W, 24-13 Final
      Nov 22 at Husson University W, 27-20 Final – OT
      NCAA Playoffs – First Round
      Nov 29 at Wesley L, 59-0 Final


      when we send ourselves or our kids to big time sports schools – we are supporting
      the current system… even as we whine and wring our hands about it…. and blame the school…

  5. There are a lot of counterfactuals to this. Say whatever one wants to about athletics and college, but….

    Go look at Durham. In the 50s and 60s, Duke was thought of as a “great” school, but no one put on the pedestal with the Ivies, MIT, etc.

    The rise of the school’s basketball team gave the school a brand and magnet that the Ivies didn’t offer….a national championship basketball team that attracted students. Anyone associated with that university will tell you that the basketball team is what catapulted up the academic rankings.

    While U.Va.’s baseball team probably lost money last year from an operating standpoint….could the school have gained any better publicity or brand building? Which makes it more attractive to a number of students….

    I get your point. But, I also think it’s true that one of the reasons that kids routinely choose a U.Va. or Duke or UNC or Virginia Tech over William and Mary, JMU, etc. is b/c they want to go to a school with a big time sports program. These aren’t dumb kids either. My wife’s co-worker’s kid picked U.Va. over William and Mary due to this reason. That kid is now an investment banker and I’m sure he writes at least a 5K check to U.Va. every year. Think it was worth it for U.Va. to have a big time sports program? How many kids like that are at Tech, U.Va., Duke, and UNC due to sports even though they don’t play???

    Just something to think about….

    • It is but it’s also fair to point out that out of all the kids from K-12 to college that don’t end up in the Pros – and don’t even end up with a very good education – and all the millions/billions of dollars in student fees and taxpayer money that support something that has morphed into a perversion of original collegiate sports – yes… a perversion…

      I remember when you could not play for Duke unless you MAINTAINED a “B” average and I was on board with that – and I remember also when good players would wash out of some Colleges when they could not cut the academics.

      how about right now? what are the standards? How many wash out of college for failure to perform – academics?

      but also – how many kids have gone to a GOOD university without a big time sports program then became successful bankers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists? How many Universities now state with pride the real-world accomplishments of their grads – instead of Sports?

      The quality of the graduates from the big Universities with sports programs has not only gone downhill over the years but the failure rate has increased.

      Report: U.S. Drops in High School, College Grad Rates

      Study: Nearly Half Of America’s College Students Drop Out Before Receiving A Degree


      “The high cost of college and other factors are causing American students to drop out before receiving their degree at higher rates than in other developed countries, according to a new study from Harvard University. Only 56 percent of the students who enter America’s colleges and universities graduate within six years, while only 29 percent of students who enter two-year programs complete their degrees within three years, the study found.

      The Harvard study is backed by other research showing that Americans complete college at lower rates than the other, poorer countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development:

      The Harvard study’s assertions are supported by data collected by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development for its report “Education at a Glance 2010.” Among 18 countries tracked by the OECD, the United States finished last (46 percent) for the percentage of students who completed college once they started it.

      That puts the United States behind Japan (89 percent), and former Soviet-bloc states such as Slovakia (63 percent) and Poland (61 percent).
      One factor in the higher drop-out rates, according to the Harvard study, is the rising cost of a college education. The cost of college has nearly sextupled since 1985

    • Cville, as a generality (there may be some exceptions), male football teams and basketball teams make money and all other teams lose money. In other words, the sports that help create the school brand would not be affected by any proposal to roll student subsidies of sports.

      UVa happens to be a national powerhouse in male baseball, lacrosse and soccer, second-tier sports that reflect well on the university. I don’t know what their financials look like, but I suspect they lose money — although, if forced to, they might be able to scrape up enough money to support their programs through ticket sales, fund-raisers, charges to student athletes, bequests from lacrosse-playing alumni and the like.

      • I’d be suspicious that ALL expenses – including all coaches and other staff and their benefits, health care , pension and the stadium and other capital facilities are paid for.

        I’d have to be convinced with a real budget…

        and the problem is not just the money – it’s the way big time college sports has corrupted the idea of academic performance and excellence vs team members with crummy grades and graduation for the majority of the team that does not go on to the pros.

        all of this tends to undermine and damage UVA’s stature as an institution of academic excellence – and they encouraging other colleges nowhere near as well off financially – to emulate them .. as something other colleges should aspire to be.

        There are schools like MIT that make clear that academics come first and sports is truly what it was originally intended to be – school spirit, recognize athletic talent – but keep the big picture on academic excellence so that a degree from MIT does mean something – even if you played football.

        Our angst and discomfiture makes us want to blame the University for it’s mores – but how much can we really blame on the University and how much on what people want? MIT had no trouble with their academic mores.. they knew what had to remain the most important – and did so without abandoning sports – but rather making sure they kept to their place in the bigger scheme …

        There are quite a number of colleges and Universities that hew to MITs ethics… but they are really virtually unknown – not only as colleges that emphasize academics over sports – but in their more modest costs – because they are not hostage to big time sports. They have student fees also – but they are not unreasonable… so…

        how come the big time sports universities are said to be self-funded but at the same time are seeing dramatic increases in student fees?

        that seems almost contradictory… as compared to colleges that don’t emphasize big time sports..

  6. A few thoughts here… and a bit of a soapbox.

    1. My understanding is that Hokie football and basketball, UVA football and basketball, and VMI football are all profitable. UVA baseball and lacrosse could probably swing it in a pinch (baseball gives out partial scholarships anyway) and a few other schools’ have a sport that could maybe cut it (say ODU’s new football team or VCU basketball). Problem of course is that the most profitable sports also bring the most pressure to perform and result in the most dubious student/athlete conflicts (see UNC).

    2. It’ll be very hard to wean colleges off of the system or encourage unilateral disarmament. Publicity from the big sports is worth its weight in gold, especially in a country where thousands of practically identical colleges compete to distinguish themselves. When GMU’s Cinderella team reached the Final Four in 2006, admissions inquiries jumped 350%, and lucrative out-of-state applications jumped 40%. A similar thing happened at VCU after its Final Four run.

    3. This dogged chase after the limelight in basketball or football also leads schools to jostle for spots in the best conference they can get into, regardless of its geographic spread. ODU, in order to get FBS football, joined a conference with schools in Florida and Texas. Besides coaches, facilities, and scholarships, travel costs are a huge part of athletic departments’ budgets (consider that for a football game on the opposite side of the country, you’re flying 100 players and staff across the country and back). And now that your football team has managed to get into a decent conference, all the runners, swimmers, rowers, etc. all need to travel to those schools also. It would make a lot more sense from a financial perspective to cut the big money sports loose and then get ODU, VCU, William and Mary, ECU, UNC, Duke, NC State, Norfolk State, and U of R into the same conference for everything else.

    4. What makes your argument politically difficult is that people want to be part of something and have a team even if they don’t necessarily want to pay to go to a game. The consternation at the loss of the University of Alabama Birmingham football team is a great example. A president finally had the courage to cut a money-hemorrhaging program and there is outcry.

    Here’s where the solution also needs to come from the Dutch (to use the previous example), who have more going on than first meets the eye. Europeans have far more developed professional sports pyramids that command people’s loyalties and don’t maintain a monopoly on professional sports that’s reserved to the 30 largest TV markets. European leagues are structured in hierarchies from the top professional league all the way to amateur city leagues. Teams that win their league one year are promoted to the next league up the following year – or relegated if they finish at the bottom. The system has its issues with club stability, but it makes for far more exciting league games late in the year as the bottom teams battle to stay in the top league.

    And the promotion-relegation system has another benefit. It means that every village and town has a professional team, playing for itself, not a contracted practice squad for some higher team, and with a theoretical shot at making it to the big stage some day. These teams command incredible local loyalties over decades as they rise and fall in the pyramid. Contrast that with AAA baseball, the best most small cities can do, with meaningless contests between teams that will never win anything notable. The best one can hope for is to catch some future star before he gets called up to the real games.

    In the US, cheering for professional sports is a practically meaningless exercise – the teams are built to cycle through every so often (worst teams getting best draft picks, etc) and are fixed in the largest markets. Identifying with one might as well be a matter of picking your favorite color. Real traditions and identities are built instead around college sports, the closest thing we have to a European sports experience, especially in the hundreds of cities and regions that don’t have and never will have a professional team. Alabama will never get an NFL franchise no matter how hard it tries because it lacks a major metro area and TV market to make investors confident. So instead it has Roll Tide and War Eagle, with larger stadiums than some NFL teams, and proving that there is no good reason why Alabama couldn’t generate a Super Bowl champion. Virginia is another perfect example – with two of the four largest metro areas in the country without a major league franchise of any kind. In Europe, getting one would be a matter of the Richmond Flying Squirrels going on a run, crowds getting excited, and the team battling its way to the top. Here, it’s a matter of endless negotiations and deals to try to buy an expansion franchise falling through. So instead we have college basketball, where the NCAA tournament is just that sort of democratic dream for 300+ teams in small towns across the country to chase. And sometimes, an unknown school like GMU or VCU manages to break into the top tier and create the kind of excitement that a professional team never could.

    One last reason the European system is better: thousands of cities support teams that have a strong enough fan base to pay the salaries of good players who maybe weren’t good enough to make it to the top league. Far more players have a chance to actually make a living at what they’re good at, even if it’s not a killing. In the U.S., if you aren’t one of the 300 best basketball players in the country at any one time, you are probably making pretty much nothing. And even though hundreds of college teams are inspiring fans and selling tickets, none of those players will see it. That’s why so many US basketball players who can’t cut it in the NBA go over to Europe to play now. Maybe they can’t make millions with the Spurs, but they can play for a 4th-tier Spanish team and make enough to support themselves.

    So… to me, the solution is actually to change professional sports. As long as professional sports in the US work the way they do, there will always be an immense vacuum for the kinds of teams and opportunities that college sports provide. And that vacuum means there will be value for colleges to chase – either in ticket and TV revenues or, more likely, in the even greater value of publicity and prestige that can save their struggling admissions departments.

    • excellent point by point analyses that demonstrates conclusively that it is what it is because people want it and they reward schools that provide it and schools that do not – even better schools academically and cheaper financially are over-shadowed.

      Most parents and kids when they go over the options either never include the cheaper more academically robust in their lists or they don’t know they even exist or they do believe that the big-time sports college degree is worth more after graduation than a relatively unknown college.

      we do the same complaint here about sports – about fees, about loans, etc.. but in the end – it’s 1. what most people want and 2. the colleges know it and respond to it.

      It’s sorta like knowing the Toyota Corrolla is one of the best, most reliable cars on the road -but the kid wants the one that Consumers says is a crap car.

  7. I agree that there should be no student support for money making enterprises like big time football and basketball. They are simply entertainment and not academically oriented at all. Anyone read about the degrees one ACC with a big time academic and sports profile gave athletes illegally?
    Big time football and basketball should be university owned enterprises like hotels, research parks etc. There is no reason why a university cannot own real estate enterprises etc. that make a profit so why not treat athletics the same way. No use for “students” who would never be admitted except they are part of a sports program to even be students.
    Actually, football and basketball players are really indentured servants. They must work 40-50 hours per week for their team and then go part time and take not very demanding courses to stay eligible. Institutions have added a lot of non-academic degrees to accommodate the poorly prepared players of big time sports and help make them eligible.
    In the past 10 years big time football coaches have seen their compensation soar by 20-30% on average while the players or indentured servants have worked day and night been given grades all to see if they might be pro football prospects and where only about 5% succeed. Most of these student plyers would have been better in welding school
    At the same time coaches make millions of dollars per year. No players are not slaves but indentured servants as they are committed not for life but to a specific period and an addition to working in the new tobacco fields they have to go to school part time. These enterprises could pay the university a land lease fee which the university might use to subsidize athletic tickets for all students.
    One example of what happens when a small public university adds football can be found on the Atlantic Coast. The school added football with an ambition of being at the second level and their athletic fee jumped from $400 per year to $2,400 per year. So the average student who graduates in five years will be paying some $10,000 over five years to attend college football games. They might be able to buy Redskins tickets for that price?
    Yes change is needed and it will come as the tidal wave of hits American higher education. Why not use football and basketball a side business unrelated to the academic mission at all?

    • “Why not use football and basketball a side business unrelated to the academic mission at all?”

      because in some schools the athletics legitimately functions in the way scholastic athletics was always supposed to work and has not become the perversion that big sports has become – in the name of scholastic athletics.

      Yes – Universities do own and operate separate enterprises and maybe that is a solution – a firewall … and get rid of the dishonest premise that the players are actually “students”.

  8. we are, without a doubt, one of the most narcissistic societies on the face of the earth.

    It’s not good enough that we use the most energy and food resources, live in homes 3 times the size that most folks live in and enjoy the most extensive highway system and health care …

    we ALSO can’t attend college and get a higher education in relative anonymity – nope.

    we have to bleat it to the rooftops – and the more prestigious and well-known the college is – the better – even if notorious for it’s bogus, over the line, sports programs – the better.

    no where else on earth – is it this way….

    and we whimper about how “sports” is “ruining” our culture…

    good lord! what the USA is – is narcissism on steroids! it’s all about us.

    when we have a hurricane that kills 20 – it’s the end of the world – when a Typhoon hits Bangladesh and kills 20,000 it’s a yawner…

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