Higher Education

College students begin to cry foul about paying more for sports

Often hidden in fees, athletics programs continue to drive costs higher

University of California, Santa Cruz athletes at a drill. Some students want to roll back the fees they pay to support sports teams.

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Andy Pinedo likes sports. He just doesn’t want to pay more so other people can play them.

As sophomore at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Pinedo voted “no” last year in a referendum about whether he was willing to hand over another $270 a year to support his school’s Division III teams, above the $1,221 in fees the campus charges now.

“Students already pay too much,” said Pinedo, who was wearing a black “Fund the UC” T-shirt, promoting a campaign to get the state to spend more on public higher education, with a design mimicking the logo of the hip-hop group Run-DMC.

“I have friends on teams, and athletics are something universities should support,” Pinedo said. But he said administrators were too quick “to pass costs along to students.”

Not many college students get the chance to make their views about this known. Even the vote Pinedo cast was only part of a nonbinding opinion poll. The actual fee increase will next go to a campuswide referendum this year that needs a supermajority of 66 percent to pass.

But with universities and colleges now spending an estimated $13.8 billion annually on athletics, according to the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, scrutiny is heightening, particularly since that amount has continued to escalate even as other costs are being cut.

Student fees —where athletic subsidizes are often hidden — have been rising even faster than tuition. Told how much of what they paid in fees was going toward athletics, more than 90 percent of students at schools in the Mid-American Conference said in a 2014 survey that they were against the fee or wanted it reduced.

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“It’s not the athletics, it’s the skewed way athletics has developed on campuses that has made it an outsized part of the budget,” said Nathan Tublitz, a professor at University of Oregon and former chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics. “It’s unsustainable and to the detriment of the academic environment. It’s like you have this giant bicep that is overstimulated and every other muscle is withering way.”

This imbalance has worsened since the economic downturn. Universities and colleges at Football Bowl Subdivision institutions, the 128 institutions that compete in the highest football division and all of the year-end bowl games, spend an average of $15,615 per student, up 2 percent since 2008 when adjusted for inflation, the Knight Foundation reports. The amount they spend per athlete is $110,964, up 18 percent during the same period, adjusting for inflation using the Higher Education Price Index.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has three divisions, and also manages the Football Bowl Subdivision. Division III, with more than 180,000 athletes at 450 schools, is the largest, and the spending increase has been even higher on Division III campuses without football teams, such as UC Santa Cruz. Those schools boosted their spending on athletics by 112 percent above inflation from 2003-2004 to 2011-2012 according to the AAUP.

The University of California, Santa Cruz mascot, the Banana Slug. Some students want to roll back the fees they pay to support sports teams.

Coaches’ salaries have also continued to rise dramatically. Between 2005-2006 and 2011-2012 Division I basketball coaches’ median pay more than doubled, even after inflation is taken into account, the AAUP said, and football coaches’ earnings rose 93 percent. In 2012 the average salary for Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches was $1.64 million, according to USA Today, which tracks coach’s salaries annually.

And while administrators often say athletics benefit their universities — and 77 percent of Americans in a Monmouth University poll said they thought big-time programs make big profits — the NCAA itself reports that only 24 of its 1,200 member take in more than they spend on sports. Even after broadcast rights, ticket sales, sponsorships, sports camp, and investment income is taken into account, colleges have to subsidize a median 27.5 percent of athletic spending, much of it from student fees, the AAUP says.

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“The fact is, all the data shows that many of the purported academic benefits of sports — recruitment, prestige — have all proven to not be true. They don’t exist,” Tublitz said.

Those myths persist, however. At Santa Cruz, the specter of an alumni backlash hangs over the athletics debate. A special faculty senate committee reported that some donors are withholding promised contributions or delaying new pledges as they wait to see what happens. The committee said it also worried that dropping NCAA participation would diminish the university’s connection with its community and signal that Santa Cruz is not a “top-notch institution.” After years of promoting NCAA participation and growth in sports, universities are wary of the negative marketing impact of dropping athletics.

A few universities have cut sports — often such teams as fencing and swimming — and the culling continues. Spelman College dropped its entire NCAA intercollegiate athletics program in 2013, with the $1 million in savings going to a campuswide fitness program. The next year, Temple University eliminated seven varsity sports. Stillman College is leaving NCAA Division II for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, where it will compete in only two sports: men’s and women’s basketball. NCAA requires participation in a certain number of sports; NAIA offers more flexibility.

“In the past, universities went along and pumped money into athletics to keep up with the Joneses,” said John Gerdy, a former Division I athlete and athletics administrator who now advocates for intercollegiate sports reform. “With the pressures of increased student debt and rising costs, administrations are being forced to ask more questions.”

So are students and their parents. Just 24 percent of Americans think universities with big-time sports programs properly balance athletics with academics, and 67 percent say they place too much emphasis on sports, the Monmouth poll found.

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That may result from greater sensitivity to student fees, which are eating up a larger share of student budgets. General student fees at public institutions rose at an average rate of 13 percent higher than inflation, according to David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University and a fellow at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

“Until recently parents and students paid far more attention to tuition and ignored the fees,” Ridpath said. As a result, “Student fees became an easy target to support the athletic programs.”

Yet sports can be hard to quit. When the University of Alabama Birmingham decided to save money by cutting its football program, there was a community outcry and backlash against the university administration. Donors rounded up $27 million in new funding, and football is now back in Birmingham.

“Will be there be a sudden, mass movement out of sports? Probably not,” Gerdy said. “But I think what you will find is slowly but surely more schools will have to wrestle this question and make tough decisions about where their resources are going.”

Deciding to eliminate athletics is no easy matter.

“The main goal of the college president is to raise money. They aren’t interested in challenging the athletics budget,” Tublitz said. “These days [presidents] stay for three to five years, and then they move on. So there is no incentive to take on such a big challenge. There are many cases where presidents were shown the door when they weren’t in line with the athletics department.”

UC Santa Cruz shored up its athletics program out of general operating funds even as its total budget was cut by $66 million between 2008 and 2015, according to the university’s annual report. But a permanent solution is needed. For a small campus that does not draw large crowds and can never hope for big television and ticket money, the options are few.

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“There are so many other demands on these same funds that serve a much broader portion of the student community, and often part of the community that has more critical needs,” including student academic support, advising, and cultural programs, said Santa Cruz Executive Vice Chancellor Alison Galloway.

UCSC has always been a campus with its own unique character. When the school joined the NCAA in 1980, the chancellor and some student athletes lobbied for a sea lion mascot. But Santa Cruz’s weird side would not be denied. The student body rallied behind the banana slug, a taxi cab-yellow mollusk that populates the campus redwood groves.

“I’m afraid [the process] will drag on a long time,” Galloway said from her office tucked into those woods. “Nobody wants to see this program disappear. There’s nothing wrong with the program, it’s just the cost of it.”

There are serious doubts that UCSC students will approve spending more to keep athletics. They already voted down an initiative last year asking for an extra $351 per year, which did not affect the sports program at the time but delayed any decisions. No fee increase of more than $10 per quarter has been approved in recent memory, and after years of seeing their tuition increase and programs cut, students are resistant to additional costs.

“Coming to the students every year with proposals for new fees just to keep the programs we already have is not sustainable,” said Pinedo. “Students are annoyed and fatigued, and it’s no way to run a university.”

With that he walked away, revealing the message on the back of his T-shirt:

“The Fees Are Too Damn High.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.

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