Walk on any college campus in America and you will see the marks of recession: shuttered libraries, empty buildings and eroding infrastructure.
Of course, you will probably need to look past that shiny new football operations building first.
Despite universally tighter budgets and rising tuition, athletic spending in public colleges competing in the NCAA Division I increased rapidly between 2005 and 2010, according to a new report by the Delta Cost Project at the American Institutes for Research; so rapidly that the athletic spending outpaced the drastic increase in tuition, rising by almost 50 percent in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).
This trend is an absolute disgrace for American academics, where the primary mission should be scholarship, not athletics. It is simply absurd for a university to cut programs and freeze pay on one hand, while engaging in an athletics funding free-for-all on the other.
On average, public colleges competing in the NCAA Division I spend three to six times as much per athlete as they do to educate each of their students, according to the Delta report. Three FBS conferences - Southeastern Conference (SEC), the Big 12 and WSU’s own Pac-12 - spent even more, with the SEC spending 12 times as much per athlete as they do per student.
This translates into an annual increase of about $6,200 per athlete per year for schools in the FBS, compared to a meager $500 in academic spending per full-time student.
“The Delta report confirms what a lot of college presidents have long feared: that intercollegiate athletics has become a financial arms race,” said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, according to the New York Times.
Unfortunately, this translates into skyrocketing athletic budgets while academic budgets remain stagnant, quite the opposite of what one might expect from supposedly scholarly institutions.
Despite wildly varying athletic budgets, spending patterns are strikingly consistent across all conferences. Compensation and benefits for athletic department staff represent the largest expense, consuming about one third of the department’s budget, half of which goes into coaching staff salaries alone, according to the report.
Head Coach Mike Leach received an enormous $11.25 million contract last year in return for his services, making him one of the highest paid public employees in the state, according to the Seattle Times. While the value of this contract will be debated for some time, investing millions of dollars into this single individual suggests that WSU’s priorities lie more on the field and less in the classroom.
Of course, lucrative new television contracts are supposedly making athletics more self-sustaining, earning the top five conferences around $12-20 million per school per year, according to the Delta report.
WSU could not afford to hire Leach without these contracts, according to ESPN, nor could it fund the $80 million stadium renovation or the $60 million new football operations building without the deep pockets of the NCAA.
However, even with these lucrative sources of revenue, athletic programs have not become any more self-sustaining. Between 2005 and 2010, fewer than one in four of the 97 public FBS athletic departments generated more money than they spent in any given year, and two thirds of these profitable departments still received athletic subsidies, according to the Delta report.
For such a large price tag, universities have seen comparatively meager benefits.
Advocates of college athletics are quick to assert the benefits of these programs, pointing to strengthened school spirit, increased enrollment and greater donations stemming from successful sports teams.
Problem is, there is no real evidence to suggest a winning team correlates to a long-term increase in enrollment, with most studies finding an “application bump” lasting only one or two years following a successful season.
There is also not a strong consensus about a boost to donations. Schools with winning football teams will likely receive short-term boosts to alumni donations, according to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, but the effects may be too modest and inconsistent to justify increased expenditure.
Last January, the Washington State Supreme Court announced in its McCleary v. State decision that the state is not living up to its constitutional obligation to properly fund public education. Despite this, WSU is wasting $11.25 million on a man, $80 million on luxury seating and $60 million on a fancy building, while simultaneously cutting departments and closing libraries.
It is extremely irresponsible for WSU and American academia in general to embrace out-of-control athletic budgets while scaling back scholarly programs. These distorted priorities are forcing students to pay more money for a worse education in order to subsidize a pastime.