There’s a new study  out comparing the paychecks of head coaches to those of faculty members, but its findings are not the standard condemnation of the fact that athletics staff are making way more – and faster – than professors.
Controlling for a series of factors that complicate direct comparisons between academic and athletic staff, the study found that universities in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Football Bowl Subdivision are actually spending more per capita on professors than they are on head coaches – as much as six times more, in some conferences.
The study also posits that salaries on both sides can be explained by the “revenue theory of cost,” a common financial mentality in higher education, which essentially states that the more money an entity makes – be it an athletics program or an academic unit – the more it will spend.
“In many cases increases in athletic expenditure may then be a product of the need to spend annual revenues, rather than ‘out-of-control’ spending – how athletics are often regarded within academia,” the paper states.
The findings paint an incredibly different picture from those of a study  published last month, which said coaches in some conferences made as much as eight times more than faculty members did, and another report  last month visualizing the prominence of head coaches among states' highest-paid employees (they come out on top in 40 of 50 states).
The new study controls for four factors that vary between an institution’s academic side and the more business-minded athletic department: professional rank (the paper compares only head and assistant coaches, separately, and professors, so as not to underestimate faculty salaries by including adjuncts), outside compensation (reported faculty salaries do not include things such as consulting and grant bonuses, whereas coaches’ do), salary reporting period (typically 9 months for faculty, 12 months for coaches) and different definitions of revenue.
“It’s just looking at the interplay between athletics and university spending in a new way,” said Dennis Kramer, the paper’s author and a senior research and policy analyst at the Georgia Department of Education. “If both [revenues and expenditures] are escalating and there’s not a net shift in the financial burden, there tends to be an operating of the status quo.”
The study was published by Winthrop Intelligence, a firm whose mission is to "help athletic directors make the best decisions with the best data."
Using this approach, the study found that while overall tenured professorial salaries still lag behind those of head coaches ($108,841 and $283,724, respectively), they surpass assistant coaches (who make $81,631), a distinction lost when all coaching staff and all instructors of any rank are grouped together for comparison. (On the flip side, because of that, professors might not come out on top of assistant coaches in some individual sports.)
And the difference was far more stark (in favor of the professors) when Kramer considered compensation provided through state and institutional funds, including tuition and fees.
Excluding all money that doesn’t come from state and institutional funds, Kramer found that professors in 2011 made $79,162 – over 50 percent more than head coaches, who made $51,754. (Coaches make larger portions of their salaries through outside work such as media appearances and apparel bonuses.)
That explanation of the paper’s findings may do little to assuage the concerns of critics of big-time sports in academe. The study does a good job teasing out the nuances that go into salaries, but is “making it more complicated than it needs to be,” said Scott Hirko, assistant professor of sport management at Central Michigan University and co-author of the study published last month, which nabbed a mention in Kramer’s paper.
The meat in Hirko’s own study was the startling rate  at which football coach salaries outpaced the instructional salaries from 2005-11 – a more expansive picture than the one-year snapshot in Kramer’s paper.
“The reality is the growth in athletics is behaving so independently of the academic structure that it leads to a concern,” Hirko said. “Spending of athletics can distort its place in higher education. I think it’s out of whack.”
However, Kramer argued against the lump-sum approach taken by other researchers.
"Salary escalation is an important item to monitor as athletic programs continue to invest in athletic performance," he wrote at the paper's conclusion. "It must be noted, however, that directly comparing coaches' salaries to faculty salaries leads to problematic interpretations that leave neither a favorable nor fair impression of the reality of compensation in college athletics."
The takeaway from his study, Kramer said, is “just understanding the challenges when you’re comparing the athletic and academic entities.” Kramer hopes the paper helps policy makers have a fuller understanding of these data’s nuances, and prompts individual universities to apply his findings to their own institutions.
“It really was meant to be a way to just kind of combat some of those challenges, some of those barriers, to make more equitable or even quality comparisons across the sectors,” he said.