College affordability is one of those issues that inspires many a politician to wring his hands, furrow his brow and - after careful consideration - boldly call for more state funding. But if these politicians really cared about college affordability, wouldn't they ask colleges to make some difficult cuts? Columnist A. Barton Hinkle makes a pretty good case for why students and taxpayers shouldn't be asked to pay for college athletics:
A story last year in USA Today reported that "at least six schools—all in Virginia—charged each of their students more than $1,000 as an athletics fee for the 2008-09 school year. That ranged from 10 percent to more than 23 percent of the total tuition and mandatory-fee charges for in-state students." Yet some students never attend so much as a single basketball or football game—never mind a lacrosse match or rowing competition.Kentucky is a place where basketball experience can serve as an embarrassingly effective launching pad to elective office. It's hard to imagine a Kentucky politician saying that even highly indebted college students or cash-strapped taxpayers shouldn't be compelled to pay for college sports programs, no matter how much they might claim to care about preserving college affordability or the pocketbooks of their constituents.
There are some exceptions. Depending on the year, one to two dozen athletic departments around the country turn a profit. Those are the ones such as Virginia Tech with huge football programs (or, occasionally, great basketball). At those schools, the football and men's basketball teams end up subsidizing all the rest—from women's basketball to men's tennis.
Kristi Dosh, a lawyer who specializes in sports financing and who runs the blog businessofcollegesports.com, has analyzed how much sports other than football and men's basketball siphon off. Most of the time, she has found, the cost of other sports more than outweighs the net gain from football and basketball, and the losses can be huge even before adding in big variables such as coaches' salaries, aid to student athletes and recruiting.
Take the University of Florida. During the 2009-2010 school year it raked in $44 million from football and $2 million from men's basketball—but lost $2.8 million on women's basketball, $5.3 million on other men's sports, and $10 million on other women's sports. And that's before you include the cost of coaches' salaries ($17.4 million), aid to student athletes ($7.5 million), and recruiting ($1.4 million).
Unlike Florida most universities don't have a top-20 football team—if they have a football team at all. And even many that do end up looking like Rutgers, which (reports Bloomberg) last year gave the women's basketball coach a monthly golf allowance while removing professors' desk phones from the history department to cut costs.
True, Virginia law ostensibly limits the use of public funds for athletics. But athletic-department budgets are notoriously opaque: Money pours into one big pot from a variety of sources (e.g., ticket sales, alumni donations, student fees), gets mingled together and then gets spent on everything from salaries to Gatorade. As a VMI spokesman told USA Today, information about athletic fees is "buried in our budget."
But not only is the financing fudge-able, money is fungible. In other words: If VCU were not spending $600 of each student fee on athletics, some of that money might be available for, say, assistant professors. Ditto for alumni donations, endowment proceeds, and the like. This in turn would reduce a school's need for state funds.