The Forum | Costs

Where Does the Money Go?

Athletic v. Academic Spending at Division I Schools
January 16, 2013

A new study by the Delta Cost Project at American Institutes for Research finds that schools in the NCAA Division I spend far more on athletics, per athlete, than on academics per student—and athletic expenditures are growing much faster. Inside Higher Ed reports:

[T]he growth in per-athlete athletic spending outpaced the growth in per-student academic spending over that time period in all subdivisions of Division I athletics. In general, the report found that Division I universities and colleges tended to spend roughly three to six times as much on athletics per athlete as on academics per student, with the ratio exceeding 12 times in the Southeastern Conference, home of the last seven NCAA national champions in football.

Schools in the Football Bowl System (FBS), which includes the top football conferences in the country, spent an average of $13,628 per student on academics; they spent $91,936 per athlete on athletics. 

I’m not terribly surprised that schools spend more to equip and train a football or basketball player than to teach a student. Athletics and academics are wholly different activities, calling for different facilities and equipment: there is no reason to expect fields, training facilities, and coaches to cost the same amount as libraries, classrooms, and teachers. But if you want to find a scandal, just look at the slope of the curve.

Athletic spending per person is not only several times higher than academic spending, it is increasing much faster.  Between 2005 and 2010, FBS schools increased athletic spending per athlete by 51%, while academic spending per student increased only 23%. And this happened during the recession, at a time when endowments and state subsidies were shriveling. If athletic spending grew so quickly even in the toughest times, it is hard not to think that many universities value athletics above their academic mission.

But what about the benefits of prominent athletic programs? Don’t sports teams support the rest of the school through ticket sales, television contracts, and the like? A handful of very successful teams, like the Alabama Crimson Tide, do just that—but most do not. Even storied football programs are often net money-losers, and they cost more and more over time. Between 2005 and 2010 the cost of the athletic subsidy per athlete at FBS schools increased sixty-one percent, even faster than athletic spending—which means that the growing athletic spending was not even bringing in enough revenue to break even.   

College trustees and presidents enjoy the acclaim that comes with successful athletic programs. But their mission is academic, and I hope they will bear in mind the study’s conclusion:

The belief that college sports are a financial boon to colleges and universities is generally misguided. Although some big-time college sports athletic departments are self-supporting—and some specific sports may be profitable enough to help support other campus sports programs—more often than not, the colleges and universities are subsidizing athletics, not the other way around. In fact, student fees or institutional subsidies (coming from tuition, state appropriations, endowments, or other revenue-generating activities on campus) often support even the largest NCAA Division I college sports programs… While a winning team may generate some new students and donors, the price of participating in Division I athletics is high. And disparities in academic and athletic spending suggest that participating public colleges and universities reexamine their game plans.


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