How college students subsidize useless sports

As parents and students struggle to keep up with rising college tuition and take on greater burdens of debt, universities are being challenged to justify the ballooning athletic fees they tack on to the bill.

In the 2010-11 academic year, the 227 public institutions in Division 1 of the National Collegiate Athletic Association collected more than $2 billion in athletic fees from their students — or an average of more than $500 per enrollee — according to research by Jeff Smith at the University of South Carolina Upstate.

These fees, which can exceed $1,000 a year, are often itemized as a “student activity” or “general” expense. That may explain why separate research, by David Ridpath of Ohio University, found that students were only dimly aware of the extent of the fees, and weren’t pleased once they found out how much they were paying.

Worse yet, institutions with high proportions of poorer students carrying substantial education debt appeared to be charging the highest fees. 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…

Moreover, the schools in low-athletic-fee conferences typically had better academic reputations, mostly in the top one-third in Forbes magazine’s ranking of 650 colleges and universities; the high-fee conferences schools were typically below average in those rankings…None of this would matter as much if students were affluent, enthusiastic about collegiate athletics and willing to pay for high-quality sporting entertainment…

For starters, about 41 percent of respondents either didn’t know, or were highly uncertain about, whether they paid the fees. The students said they might be willing to pay more for services such as student centers and health care, though, on average, they favored sharp reductions in the cost of intercollegiate athletics. The vast majority of students, 72 percent, said athletics had an “extremely unimportant” or “unimportant” part in their school choice or as a priority for their student fees; less than 10 percent ranked the athletic programs as “important” or “extremely important…”

University trustees, who are often alumni themselves, seem to view intercollegiate athletics as a way to generate school pride. Funding these programs with fees may please influential sports fans, but it often ignores the wishes of the students themselves. 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 in St. Louis are doing just fine.

One of my all time pet peeves. While I think there should be PT departments involving students in lifetime sports – the kind of thing that will keep them healthy the rest of their lives – typical athletic departments in an American University are money pits. Often, creative bookkeeping is used to hide the real costs of the “amateur” sports participation, e.g., the cost of electricity for stadiums is billed directly to the cost of physical plant, stunts like that are common.

Spending the same money on quality education just might be meaningful to individuals seeking beneficial skills for the rest of their lives.

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