It’s no secret that a strong college athletic program — especially in football or basketball — lures alumni contributors in a way that no academic program can. So it’s not surprising that colleges competing at the big-league (Division I) level lavish more money on their athletes than their students.
But a new study shows the disparity to be disturbingly lopsided, with public colleges and universities spending three to six times more money on their athletic programs than on their academic ones. That seems downright perverse, regardless of what having a winning sports team might mean to an institution in terms of money, reputation, school spirit or even applications for admission.
The study, by the Delta Cost Project at the American Institutes for Research, found that between 2005 and 2010, spending on top-tier athletic programs increased at more than twice the rate of academic spending. The amounts spent on football at so-called “power conference” schools (Big East, Big 12, Pac 10, Southeastern, etc.) were at least six times greater, with the average per athlete topping $100,000 in 2010. (Included in the tally were coaches’ salaries, athletic scholarships, recruiting and marketing costs.) Meanwhile, the average spent per full-time student was less than $14,000!
In Thursday’s New York Times story on the study, a spokesman for the American Council on Education indicated that many college presidents would like to reduce spending on athletics, but fear that doing so would jeopardize their jobs. Thus, said Senior Vice President Terry Hartle, “intercollegiate athletics has become a financial arms race.”
And sadly, it’s not going to end until priorities — of college administrators and their alumni — change. The only reason TV networks are willing to pay the top college conferences hundreds of millions of dollars to televise their games is that they have huge audiences for them and can sell hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising for them. Not until fewer people watch those games, fewer alumni stop basing their decisions to donate money on the success of the schools’ athletic programs, and prospective students give more consideration to a school’s academic standing, will things be different.