While all students must pay the costs of maintaining athletic programs, few actually benefit from the services they subsidize. In this sense, the fees are comparable to a regressive tax -- and one that is more onerous for lower-income students than for the more affluent, who are able to attend schools where athletic fees are lower.The regressive tax works two ways. First, some of the state flagship campuses claim to run an operating surplus in their athletics program, and have their football games on Saturday rather than on November school nights, with perhaps the entire payoff from the pop concession going to sports. (At Wisconsin, all the Coke money goes to Barry Alvarez. At Northern Illinois, the Pepsi money goes into general operations.) Second, at the top of the U.S. News pecking order, the so-called income sports are irrelevant.
And more spending on sports doesn’t necessarily confer greater prestige. The University of Chicago, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Emory University and Washington University St. Louis are doing just fine.Meanwhile, and we've noted this before, the wannabe bowl crashers among the mid-majors are making the wrong tradeoff.
Ohio University was ranked 98th by U.S. News & World Report in 2005. Despite some moderate athletic success, however, it fell 26 spots to No. 124 by 2011 (and has fallen even more since). Rutgers, ranked 58th in 2005, now ranks 69th.Perhaps buying an athletic reputation is cheaper -- I'm looking at you, Central Florida -- but when the football bubble pops, making the effort to maintain academic integrity will matter.
It isn’t just reputation we should care about. Take the case of Boise State University, which has embraced the mantra of spending on ball-throwing contests as a path to greatness. In athletic terms, this has been a success. Yet the university’s six-year graduation rate is an extraordinarily low 29 percent, about half that (56 percent) of its less athletically obsessed state rival, the University of Idaho. Boise State, where 28 percent of athletics costs are financed by institutional subsidies, spent a lowly $9,134 on instructional spending per student in 2011, and spent $172,415 -- 19 times as much -- on “football spending per scholarship football student.”