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. Although 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.
For the six public schools in the Big South conference, Smith shows that the average athletic fee was $1,512, about 25 times more than the average $61 paid by students at the Big Ten conference schools. Dan Garrett, my assistant, showed that at schools belonging to the five conferences with the highest athletic fees, more than 60 percent of the students received federal loans, and more than 36 percent received Pell grants. At schools belonging to the five conferences with the lowest fees, 41 percent of students received loans, and 23 percent had Pell grants.
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 conference schools were typically below average in those rankings. The low-fee conference schools included Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California Los Angeles, as well as the highly ranked state universities of Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia. By contrast, the very high-fee Big South conference schools included small to mid-sized state institutions, such as the University of North Carolina at Asheville or Radford University and private, religious-affiliated ones such as Liberty University and Presbyterian College.
The low-fee conferences feature powerhouse football and basketball teams - at schools with athletic budgets often exceeding $100 million - that generate huge ticket and television revenue to defray costs. By contrast, at the Mid-American conference schools (where the average student athletic-fee subsidy was $831), sports budgets were typically about $20 million to $25 million, and were funded through subsidies that often exceeded $15 million per school.
None of this would matter as much if students were affluent, enthusiastic about collegiate athletics and willing to pay for high-quality sporting entertainment. Yet Ridpath's study shows that this may not be the case for the 275,000 students of the Mid-American conference schools. 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.
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.
Richard Vedder, a Bloomberg View contributor, directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and teaches economics at Ohio University.