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How student fees boost college sports amid rising budgets
Linda Randall says her daughter, Randi-Lyn, a student at Radford University in southwestern Virginia, is not a “die-hard” follower of the Highlanders sports teams.
Even so, by the time Randi-Lyn graduates in 2012, her parents probably will have paid an average of nearly $1,000 a year in fees to the school’s athletics department. They just didn’t know it from the school’s billing statements or website.
“We’re looking at five years because she changed majors. That’s $5,000,” Randall says. “That’s one of her loans. That would have paid rent off-campus for a year. It’s kind of disheartening. I don’t think I’d have as much of a problem with it if I knew I was paying it. With what we’re paying, it doesn’t seem right.”
Like most other schools in NCAA Division I, Radford relies on student fees to help support ever-expanding athletics budgets. Many schools, including Radford, do not itemize where those fees go for those who pay the tuition bills, USA TODAY found in an ongoing examination of college athletics finances. The amounts going to athletics are soaring, and account for as much as 23% of the required annual bill for in-state students.
Students were charged more than $795 million to support sports programs at 222 Division I public schools during the 2008-09 school year, according to an analysis of thousands of pages of financial documents. Adjusting for inflation, that’s an 18% jump since 2005, making athletics funding at public schools a key force in the rapidly escalating cost of higher education.
CHAT TRANSCRIPT: Discussion of college athletics and student fees
STUDENTS: Unaware of usage of fees and less interested in athletics
DISCLOSURE: Laws in place in Virginia and Tennessee
ANALYSIS: Percentage of tuition that goes to athletics
DATABASE: What NCAA schools spend on athletics
At nearly all schools, various mandatory fees are tacked on to tuition, and can cover everything from student health care to computers. But the largest portion often goes toward running the school’s athletics department. In exchange, students typically get free or reduced admission to sporting events.
But when demand exceeds available student seating, some students can get shut out. Many aren’t interested in the games anyway.
“She does go to some of the games,” Linda Randall says of her daughter, “and it’s nice that they let them in free. … But she’s going there for the (academics); she’s not going to fund athletics.”
There were 42 Division I athletics departments that reported receiving no student-fee money in 2009, but some of those schools say student-fee money is included in institutional funding provided to athletics programs. Many schools help cover the gap between their athletics departments’ expenses and revenue because they regard sports teams — especially football and men’s basketball teams — as important parts of campus life and excellent vehicles for generating publicity and alumni support.
A University of California-Berkeley faculty group seeking ways to reduce the campus’ financial support of athletics acknowledged in a recent report that besides having a “significant” impact on the school’s $250 million in annual academic fundraising, Cal’s wide-ranging and successful sports program “adds to campus spirit and unity, provides free advertising for the campus, helps in branding, and provides a link and outreach to alumni.”
But at NCAA Division I schools, athletics spending has been rising at a faster rate than increases in academic spending, prompting various higher-education groups to call for a change in priorities.
At least six schools — all in Virginia — charged each of their students more than $1,000 as an athletics fee for the 2008-09 school year. That ranged from 10% to more than 23% of the total tuition and mandatory-fee charges for in-state students, the primary customers at most public universities.
Sandy Baum, a policy analyst for the College Board and co-author of the organization’s annual Trends in College Pricing report, asks: Is athletics “10% of what you’re getting out of college?”
At least five states, including Virginia, ban or limit the use of public and/or tuition money for athletics. For some schools in those states, relatively large fee charges become an alternative. In other states, on top of dedicated fees that might or might not have been approved by students, athletics departments often get other financial support from their schools.
The Randalls are not the only parents who were unaware of the scope of the athletics fees. Among the 20 schools nationally that had the highest estimated per-student athletics fee charges in 2009, based on a USA TODAY analysis, 15 schools confirmed that they do not disclose their per-student athletics fee charges on their billing statements, websites or in other official school publications.
Officials at four of those 15 schools — Radford, James Madison, Longwood and Norfolk State, all of which are in Virginia — said the information could be found in an appendix of a state report.
At Virginia Military Institute, the athletics fee figure is “buried in our budget,” says Col. Stewart MacInnis, a spokesman. “I had to go dig it out myself. It’s not where anybody would go look for it. You’ve identified a weak spot.”
Some schools don’t reveal how much students pay toward athletics, to try to avoid controversy.
“Why would you?” asks Jack Boyle, vice president for business affairs and finance at Cleveland State, which was just outside the top 20 in estimated per-student athletics-fee charges.
” …Whenever we spell something out, somebody decides they don’t want that service. We don’t spell out in tuition that 1.8% of it goes to run the religion department. ‘I’m an atheist. Why should I pay for them? I’d never go to any of their courses.’ “
‘A matter of transparency’
Schools’ reluctance to make public how much athletics departments get from student fees runs counter to federal, and some state-level, efforts to require greater transparency of college costs.
The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 this year began requiring schools to annually report to the Education Department separate figures for tuition and required fees. (They had been allowed to report a combined figure.)
Starting in July 2011, schools with the largest percentage increases in price over the previous three years will be listed by the department and required to report the reasons for the increases and what will be done to cut costs.
In May, the University of California system voted to force greater disclosure of how its schools use money from a fee that can fund certain programs, including athletics. Each campus will have to maintain a website that says how the spending of that money compares with the spending recommended by the campus’ student-fee advisory committee.
In June, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics advocated making student fees apparent as a means to reform athletics spending.
“At a time when the cost of attendance at college is going up at a very high rate, it’s a matter of transparency and fairness and equity that people ought to know what they’re spending their money on,” commission co-chairman William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said at that time. “I think that is a way of bringing pressure to bear — this transparency and this exposure of revenues and expenditures — and beginning to put a hold on, to tamp down, the rate of increase (of spending) in intercollegiate athletics.”
After Kirwan’s comments, USA TODAY found that two schools in the Maryland system were among the top 20 in estimated per-student athletics fee charges in 2009. Maryland-Baltimore County specifically disclosed its athletics fees on its website and the university system’s; Towson provided only the amount of what the bursar’s office’s website called a “University Fee.”
“We do not itemize each cost or fee,” bursar Thomas Ruby says. “We do not get into that detail. That’s how this university operates.”
Kirwan said in early August that Towson’s athletics fee is “in the public domain” because it was discussed at a system board of regents public meeting, but “it isn’t as transparent as I think it should be. It ought to be more transparent on the website, and it will be addressed.”
Within two days, Towson’s athletics fee — $767 per student for the 2010-11 school year — had been posted on the university system’s site; it remains unspecified on Towson’s site.
The Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, plans to survey students to see how many are aware of athletics fees. But even the center acknowledges that increasing accountability is tough — mostly because even if students are aware of the fee, they rarely are clear on the true cost, administrative director Matthew Denhart says.
Many students pay their college bills with loans, so they don’t think about what the true cost will be. And third-party payers — parents, scholarships, Pell Grants — pass on the cost to someone else.
“There’s a lot of, ‘I’m not paying for it anyway, so why fight it?’ ” Denhart says.
‘Absolutely getting nothing’ from fee
There are those who are trying to fight athletics fee increases or the fees themselves.
Kentucky state Rep. Joni Jenkins filed a bill this year to prohibit public universities from charging commuter students mandatory athletics and meal-plan fees. Her bill was never taken up by a state legislative committee, but she says she plans to refile the bill soon so it will be heard in the next legislative session starting in January.
“I represent a middle-class district where parents are struggling and students are struggling,” Jenkins says. “So many of the students from my district are part time because they can’t afford to go full time, and they have to work, and they are absolutely getting nothing out of that athletic fee.”
She believes commuter students and others should be able to opt out of paying athletics fees, although she acknowledges that for “some of the smaller schools that don’t have the same revenues, (an athletics fee) does keep their non-revenue sports going.”
At Montana, however, the student body rejected a proposed athletics-fee increase, overriding action by elected student leaders. Representatives from the Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM) approved a plan to boost the athletics fee to $144 annually from $92, but other students were so outraged that they forced the issue to be put to an all-campus vote in May. The plan was defeated by a 2-to-1 ratio.
ASUM President Ashleen Williams, who supported the fee increase, predicts the issue will come up again in the fall. “Sometimes you have to make hard decisions,” she says. Relying heavily on ticket revenue to fund athletics is a “really risky game” because sales — which have been Montana’s largest or second-largest revenue source each of the past five years — can wane if teams don’t win.
Hawaii’s athletics department had been trying to rely on the $23 million a year it generated from ticket sales, donations, television and marketing, plus an additional $10 million in direct and indirect support from the university. But by this summer, the department had accumulated about $10 million in debt and was adding to that at a rate of $1.5 million to $2 million a year. Over the objections of undergraduate and graduate student organizations, the state board of regents voted in July to impose an athletics fee for the first time.
Beginning in January, students will be charged $50 a semester, an amount that is projected to increase the athletics department’s net revenue by about $1.8 million a year; the fee money will be available for any purpose except staff compensation or benefits.
“It showed a pretty messed-up sense of priorities,” says Amy Donahue, chairwoman of the University of Hawaii Graduate Student Organization’s advocacy committee. “If we’re going to pay, it should reflect the priorities of the university and benefit the entire university community.”
Associate athletics director Carl Clapp says the department hopes the fee will have such a benefit.
Athletics “is by no means the most important part” of the university, Clapp says, but “a strong, successful athletic program is very important to the connection with alumni, donors and leaders in the state, and it magnifies the university not only in Hawaii but beyond the state. That’s the visibility that the athletics program can have.”
‘We don’t ask where it’s going’
At some schools, students have been willing to approve fee increases for a variety of purposes.
In March 2009, Bowling Green students voted to approve a $60-per-semester fee to help finance the construction of a new campus arena/convocation center — and the measure carried by a ratio of more than 2 to 1. (The school won’t collect the fee until the arena’s completion, scheduled for 2011.)
Also that month, Utah State students voted 53% to 47% to more than double their athletics fee to nearly $120 a semester as part of a funding plan to help the school have a more viable program in the NCAA’s elite-level Football Bowl Subdivision.
There are students who say they don’t mind paying sizable athletics fees, regardless of whether the fees are specifically disclosed. James Madison University was another school among the top 20 in estimated per-student fee charges that did not disclose its specific athletics fee ($1,080 in 2008-09, according to the state report the school cited). Student body President Andrew Reese says that “it’s not cause for much concern for (students)” because the school provides free admission to events, puts student sections in prime seating areas, and “athletics is a very big part of the student culture.”
Cleveland State junior Andrew Sobczak says, “I personally would like it if I knew what I was paying for — and where the money was going.” But he has no problem with most of his overall fee money going toward intercollegiate athletics: “How much? That can be questionable. But I think it should. If you want to go to school, part of the whole school atmosphere is sports as well.”
If students know little or nothing about general fees, Sobczak says, it’s partly their own fault for not being more educated consumers. “We don’t question it, we don’t ask where it’s going, we don’t do any of that. So it’s definitely partly our fault that the system works that way.”
Boyle, Cleveland State’s vice president of business affairs and finance, says that if students don’t want their money going toward sports, there are options such as online schools and schools such as the University of Phoenix that do not have sports.
At Cleveland State, general fees are considered part of tuition, Boyle says. The money from collected fees generally is sliced up three ways, he says. About 40% goes to paying off debt from new student buildings. About 45% goes to athletics. The rest funds activities such as student government.
Linda Randall says being told about Radford’s athletics fee “up front would have been better. We still would have sent her there. She loves it. She’s happy. But it would have been nice to know.”
HOW ATHLETICS FEES WERE CALCULATED
Colleges that use student fees to help finance their athletics departments use a variety of methods to determine how much of each student’s fees will go toward covering expenses. Because many schools do not disclose these per-student amounts, USA TODAY used two sources of data to create an estimate for public schools in the NCAA’s Division I:
The most recent revenue-and-expense report that each school’s athletics department files annually with the NCAA. This document includes the amount of money the department receives from student fees “assessed and restricted for support of intercollegiate athletics.” In nearly all cases, the report schools filed in January 2010 covers the 2008-2009 school year.
Enrollment data for 2008-09 from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, which makes available annual figures schools have reported to the government. To arrive at its estimates, USA TODAY divided each school’s athletics fee revenue by its greatest available enrollment figure, an unduplicated count of every enrolled full-time and part-time undergraduate, graduate and professional student. The result is not necessarily the exact per-student athletics fee that was charged. In many cases in which USA TODAY could determine the actual per-student fee, that figure was higher than the estimate. – By Jack Gillum
By Steve Berkowitz, Jodi Upton, Michael McCarthy and Jack Gillum, USA TODAY