In the 2013 and 2014 seasons, competing at the highest level of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the team recorded just a single victory. Average attendance last year was among the 10 worst in the NCAA’s top level. Yet Georgia State’s 32,000 students are still required to cover much of the cost. Over the past five years, students have paid nearly $90 million in mandatory athletic fees to support football and other intercollegiate athletics — one of the highest contributions in the country.The athletics fees suggest that administrative talk about serving first-generation non-traditional diverse strivers is just so much spin.
A river of cash is flowing into college sports, financing a spending spree among elite universities that has sent coaches’ salaries soaring and spurred new discussions about whether athletes should be paid. But most of that revenue is going to a handful of elite sports programs, leaving colleges like Georgia State to rely heavily on students to finance their athletic ambitions.
In the past five years, public universities pumped more than $10.3 billion in mandatory student fees and other subsidies into their sports programs, according to an examination by The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Huffington Post. The review included an inflation-adjusted analysis of financial reports provided to the NCAA by 201 public universities competing in Division I, information that was obtained through public-records requests.
The average athletic subsidy that these colleges and their students have paid to their athletic departments increased 16 percent during that time. Student fees, which accounted for nearly half of all subsidies, increased by 10 percent.
Student-fee increases have sparked campus protests at some institutions, including the University of New Mexico, and have drawn criticism from lawmakers in some states.
The Chronicle/HuffPost analysis found that subsidy rates tend to be highest at colleges where ticket sales and other revenue are the lowest — meaning that students who have the least interest in their college’s sports teams are often required to pay the most to support them.That's true at Georgia State, which is not yet part of the football on a school night in order to get ESPN coverage that is working out so well for the Mid-American Conference.
Many colleges that heavily subsidize their athletic departments also serve poorer populations than colleges that can depend more on outside revenue for sports. The 50 institutions with the highest athletic subsidies averaged 44 percent more Pell Grant recipients than the 50 institutions with the lowest subsidies during 2012-13, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
Georgia State is far from an outlier. Last year, sports programs at 47 other public colleges reviewed by The Chronicle and HuffPost were even more dependent on fees and other institutional support as a percentage of their athletic budget.And Georgia State resisted the temptation to go into big time football, which puts them, as one of the last investors at the top of the bubble, in the worst possible shape. Even the head football coach, Bill Curry, is skeptical. But perhaps there is a greater fool elsewhere.
The growing schism between have and have-not colleges, and the reluctance of universities that rely heavily on subsidies to scale back their spending, has alarmed professors, presidents, and even college coaches, who are raising new questions about the long-term viability of major college athletics.
In the past two decades, 32 universities have made the leap to Division I. Like Georgia State, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the University of Texas at San Antonio, among others, have added football — the sport with the most potential to lead to big paydays. College leaders say such investments help attract prospective students and build connections with donors and other supporters.Or perhaps something that can't go on, won't.
“Students are our biggest donors,” says Matthew J. Streb, a political-science professor and the faculty athletics representative at Northern Illinois University, where subsidies account for more than two-thirds of the athletic department’s revenue. (About one-third of the department’s revenue comes from student fees specifically.) Without that money, he says, universities couldn’t offer as many sports or scholarships as they do.Ms Woods's situation is representative of the burdens borne by full-time students in the Mid-American Conference universities, as I have been documenting for years. And there's something about that additional expense that doesn't square with administrators and publicists blowing smoke about being student-centered. But somebody has to recognize that funding sports programs is orders of magnitude less fraught than funding fighter jets.
David Hughes is a Rutgers anthropology professor who has sparred with his administration over ballooning subsidies. His university has spent $172 million in the past five years to underwrite intercollegiate sports, more than any other college in the country during that time.
The two major forms of subsidies, he says, undermine universities in separate ways. Increases in student fees make college more expensive, while rising institutional support of athletics threatens the academic mission. “Add these things together,” he says, “and you have students paying more for a lower-quality education.”
Research published in January in the Journal of Sport found that students themselves are often unaware of athletic fees or what they are used to support. A study of 3,500 students in the Mid-American Conference found that more than 40 percent of respondents either didn’t know, or were highly uncertain about, whether they paid athletics fees. Many said they were willing to pay fees for student centers or health care, but in general did not support fees for athletics.
Brea Woods, a 20-year-old junior at Georgia State, said she didn’t know she paid an athletics fee, which costs full-time students $554 a year. “That makes me mad because I'm not an athlete,” says Ms. Woods, who has taken out $19,000 to finance her education.
Georgia State's president has not yet recognized that. And there is rain in the forecast for Wednesday night, when Western Michigan kicks off at Northern Illinois.