On the average college campus, the school's sporting teams and their prowess on the field or in the gym is a source of institutional pride and a foundation for communal identity. They are also a big-ticket expense item, which continues to grow in runaway fashion, something that warrants a frank discussion on priorities and realistic expectations.
A recent report shows that on average, public universities now spend six times as much to support student athletes as they spend to support the education of their larger student bodies. An analysis by the nonprofit American Institutes for Research also shows that sports programs do not support themselves and require subsidies to remain operational. And even though schools have been forced in recent years to rein in spending, that belt-tightening has not been generally required of athletic programs, which continue to see their expenditures escalate.
With apologies to the fans of the NCAA basketball tournament in March, this is an altogether different kind of madness.
The proportion of money dedicated to sports has spiraled upward as schools throw cash at programs to become more competitive, which in turn forces others schools to follow suit. That has certainly been the case at the University of Utah, which now belongs to the ultra-competitive Pacific 12 Conference.
The U. spends about $37 million a year on its athletic programs, a healthy sum but markedly less than its fellow members of the Pac-12. Big schools, like UCLA, spend nearly twice that much ($66 million). Comparably sized schools like Washington State University and the University of Arizona spend, respectively, $41 million and $59 million, according to the latest NCAA numbers.
Yes, the sports programs generate revenue, but not nearly enough to cover expenses. The University of Utah gets about 25 percent of the money it spends on sports as a subsidy from other university funds, according to the NCAA. Again, a healthy number, but not at the top of the class, even in Utah. Utah State University's athletic programs enjoy a 64 percent subsidy. Weber State's subsidy is 65 percent; Southern Utah University's is 78 percent.
A big part of the expense line is attributed to salaries for coaches and other athletic department personnel. Again, that's the case here, where the two highest-paid employees of the University of Utah are the school's football and basketball coaches.
The argument in support of sports programs has always been about prestige and notoriety. One premise is that a successful high-profile program will attract more applicants, widening the admissions pool and thereby the number of high scholastic achievers seeking entrance.
Research however, reveals that premise is far from a slam-dunk. A 2004 study by a Cornell University economist for the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics concluded that any correlation between victories in basketball and football and more applicants with higher SAT scores is "small and not significantly different from zero." Additional research in 2009 by the University of Pennsylvania showed that while there is a noticeable increase in applications after a school performs successfully in high-profile competition, that increase is short-lived.
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There is no question that sports programs are an important and endearing part of the college experience. They also serve the larger community of alumni and local fans who live and die by the success of their teams.
But there is ample reason to worry when spending on sports begins to crowd out spending on academics, which is currently happening at a ratio of at least 6-to-1.
There comes a point in time in which institutional leaders and legislative overseers must call for a time out and huddle over the tough question of what amount of spending on athletic programs is reasonable and sustainable, which at the current rate, is neither.