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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Tuition Discount or Sports? What Would Students Choose?

Subsides for athletics are significant. What else could that money buy?

April 12, 2018

If you gave the average student a choice between a $1000 per year reduction in tuition or their college having an intercollegiate sports program, what would they choose?

What if it was $1500 a year?

I have no idea, but I’ve been pondering this question as I consider the cost of running a sports program weighed against the cost of college to students. Student loan debt threatens the future prosperity of a significant proportion of college graduates – not to mention those who get loans, but don’t graduate – and it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see the potential for this to be a larger drag on the economic health of the nation.

Fewer than 20 schools allocate no institutional dollars to athletics. Even some schools in power conferences with significant athletics revenue and budgets in excess of $75 million a year will receive $5 million plus subsidies.[1]

But on a percentage basis, it’s the less well-heeled schools with smaller programs where the burden falls most heavily on institutional funds. UC-Riverside’s sports program is over 90% subsidized. There are almost 90 programs in the USA Today data that are over 70% subsidized.

To get a handle on what this means on the ground, I looked more closely at my most recent employer, College of Charleston, a public institution with a Division I intercollegiate sports program, but without a football team. This exercise is not meant to suggest CofC is doing anything differently than anyone else. They are acting as institutions are traditionally expected. Eliminating all sports is not really a road many have suggested we go down.

But it is interesting to see what kind of money comes from where, and where it goes as we question a future in which public funding for higher education is unlikely to increase significantly and students are increasingly burdened by debt.

If this is all the money we have, what should we be doing with it?

For the 2015-16 year (the same year covered by the USA Today data), the College of Charleston received an appropriation from the state of South Carolina of $20,573,373.[2] 

According to the USA Today data, the College of Charleston athletics department received an institutional subsidy of just under $16 million dollars.[3]

Put another way, the amount CofC spent on athletics was almost 75% of the total state appropriation. If the state of South Carolina suddenly decided to increase its funding by $16 million, there would be great and joyous celebrations amongst the people. The likelihood of this happening is nearly nil.

Recognizing that budgets don’t work this way, it’s nonetheless interesting to imagine the effect of an extra annual $16 million on an institution with around 10,000 undergrads. If every dime of that money went to reducing tuition, that’s $1600/year per student, $6,400 over a four-year education.

Looking at data provided by The Institute for College Access & Success, which studies college affordability, we find that 48% of CofC graduates leave with debt, which averages $26,203. 

A reduction in tuition of $1600/year applied directly to that figure would decrease the average debt by 25%. If we restricted the fresh funds to those who are taking loans, that debt would be more than halved. Imagine how different a life’s trajectory looks under those conditions.

I like sports. I think schools would be diminished places without athletics, but when so many aspects of our public institutions are already impoverished, I believe we have to put every option on the table.

Erica Blom of the Urban Institute did a big picture thought experiment on the same question. Her very thorough calculations find that eliminating athletics subsidies – forcing programs to be self-sustaining – would result in an additional 684,158 Pell-equivalent scholarships.

Of course, requiring athletics to be self-sustaining would consign many programs to the dustbin, or require them to drop down from Division I competition.

But maybe this is an area where the public will be willing to step up in ways they seem reluctant to do when it comes to funding academics?

If sports are important to the state and public, perhaps they can fund them through a combination of private donations and additional state money. Clemson University was able to pay for their $55 million football facility with a combination of revenues and private donations. UAB saved its football team slated for elimination by securing $17 million in donations. 

The best part of the UAB story for my money is it forced a discussion about the impact of the university on the city of Birmingham and state of Alabama and people who believed football to be an important part of the university’s identity decided to put their money behind it, rather than see it disappear.

I think we need to have many more of these conversations. Let’s get what we’re valuing and what we’re paying for out in the open for inspection and discussion.

Maybe a starting place would be to put my opening question to students themselves. They're putting up 90% of dough (in the case of CofC), after all.




[1] This data comes from a report on NCAA finances compiled and published by USA Today and the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis’ Sports Capital Journalism Program. 

[2] Tuition and fees provided just over $157 million in revenue. The state supplied around 11% of the total revenue for the college for the year under discussion.

[3] Athletics at CofC is over 80% subsidized.


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