College Guide


February 09, 2011 1:38 PM Athletics over Academics: An Improper Equation For State Universities

By Daniel Luzer


A guest post by Alexander Heffner

Today many private universities are tuition-free for low-income students ; public universities, on the other hand, have been forced to turn backward, raising fees and reducing student aid in the wake of the great recession.

Even after a turbulent economic roller-coaster prompting pay-cuts and the termination of hundreds of programs and staff, elite institutions of higher education still boast large donations and are investing increasingly in student aid.

But with statehouses in fiscal disorder and the possibility of continued shaky economic ground ahead, public universities have seen dismal cuts that are shortchanging students’ education.

If approved by the state’s general assembly, Missouri will be imposing a 7 percent cut in higher education. In Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer is spearheading efforts to ax state university budgets by 20 percent in the next two fiscal years. In California proposed cuts to higher education are inundating classrooms with anxiety. University officials say that such slashes will result in increased tuition, faculty lay-offs, reduced course offerings, more crowded classes, and dirty campuses.

That’s not all of the bad news. In Texas, as reported by the Dallas Morning News, the consequence of new cuts will mean reducing financial aid for over 60,000 students. The Atlanta Journal Constitution anticipates “more tuition increases in the coming months” and diminished financial aid offers for Georgia students. Utah’s Salt Lake Tribune chronicled in January “yet another cut in state appropriations [for education] of 7 percent,” forcing schools to contemplate limited enrollment.

The picture is similar in Nevada where legislators are expected to approve a plan to cut the state’s higher education budget by 20 percent in the coming two years. The Louisiana higher education system faces a budget deficit of 32 percent in state funding, and LLouisiana State University President John Lombardi has said that “significant increases” in tuition are on the horizon.

Yet despite the looming cuts, as the Wall Street Journal and USA Today have reported, public universities in these states continue to invest record sums into athletic departments fueling a disproportionate gulf between academic departments. According to the Journal article by Emmeline Zhao:

As colleges across the country spend… a median $84,446 per athlete in 2008, up almost 38 percent from 2005 — academic spending hasn’t changed proportionally — a median $13,349 per student, up about 20 percent over the same period, according to a report released by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

“There is no doubt that it is disconcerting to see significant growth in athletic spending while we are cutting academic programs, said Eric Barron, president of Florida State University in an interview.

In legislatures around the country, the nuts and bolts of education have become pork. In many states, funds for state-of-the-art athletic stadiums and multi-million dollar coaches provide the incentive for schools to fund new professorships or other academic-related expenditures. Successful football or basketball programs can be driver of increased scholastic investments.

Barron noted that if he removed or reduced funding for the athletic program he could lose financial support for academics. “I may lose simply because athletic events are the biggest draw to bring alumni back to campus, and alumni philanthropy is becoming a major, and desperately needed source of funds for universities.”

University officials who spoke under anonymity contend that they had to make a deal with the devil—that is, the athletic department as a whole—in order to guarantee continued funds for professors and financial aid. The result is multi-million-dollar paydays for varsity coaches and their assistants.

The annual salaries for public university basketball coaches include Florida’s Billy Donovan ($3.3 million), Kansas’s Bill Self ($3 million), Ohio State’s Thad Matta ($2.5 million), Louisville’s Rick Pitino ($2.25 million), Texas’s Rick Barnes ($2 million), and UCLA’s Ben Howland ($2 million).

When I asked about their excessive pay, University of Florida President Bernard Machen suggested they reflected the nation’s overall priorities. “Why are engineers paid more than first grade teachers?” he questioned.

Who could blame state legislatures for making severe “austerity cuts” when schools are invested in the public relations of their athletic programs more than the well-being and productiveness of their core academic departments or their capacity to provide financial aid to eligible students? But then the states themselves approve of the disproportionate non-academic spending - not demanding that schools first adequately serve their primary function to enrich young people with knowledge.

It’s a matter of priorities.

Of course, it’s not just our public universities that reflect some pretty dubious priorities. For years voters in districts from Kansas to New Jersey have voted down proposed tax hikes at the expense of the resources of their public schools. But as people’s pocketbooks and mortgages cry for less tax, despite the resulting decline and decreased quality of municipal services, most Americans are not protesting in the streets about the exorbitant salaries of state-employed celebrity coaches.

In their defense, public universities argue that their athletic programs are self-supporting, revenue-generating, and not funded by state moneys or student fees. In many instances, this appears to be true. (One big exception is UCLA, where tuition partly pays for the athletic program.)

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Daniel Freysinger on June 05, 2012 5:47 AM:

    So many universities claim that sports are either revenue neutral or positive for their schools. There is a simple solution. Firewall the atheletic funding. Make them prove that athletics doesn't cost tuition dollars. There are far more colleges that lose money from athletics than there are that gain from it.

    The real value is in marketing. Marketing seems to be the only thing administrators consider. They are interested in international and out-of-state students who bring the big tuition dollars.

    This keeping up with the Jones' is breaking the bank for students who pay sticker price for education.