By Jim Coleman
The Austin American-Statesman recently ran a series of articles investigating sports spending at the University of Texas. The articles highlight the perverted priorities which are increasingly embraced by public universities.
According the Statesman, the University of Texas’ Athletic department will spend a record breaking budget of $107.6 million to support its athletic programs, which consist of just 511 athletes. That is an average expenditure per athlete of $211,000. What makes this worse is where some of the money goes. For every football home game, $20,000 is spent so players can sleep at a local hotel. In 2005, $ 200,000 was spent renovating the football locker room. Improvements included leather recliners, big screen projectors, and flat screen TVs. An average of $3,500 of per athlete is spent on tutoring players, that is special tutoring above and beyond what non-athletic in-state students get for their $8,000 tuition. Every year the Athletic department charters about 20 private flights at $90,000 each. Finally, over the past five years, the athletic department has committed nearly a billion dollars in expenditures for constructing and renovating facilities.
Prima facie, the athletic spending at UT looks fairly high, especially when broken down into per athlete expenditures, but what really makes these numbers pop out is how they compare to UT’s academic expenditures . For the 2006-2007 school year, UT had a core academic budget of 974 million dollars. This money funded salaries, building maintenance, utilities, scholarships, and basically everything else needed to provide the students with the academic resources they needed. Dividing the academic expenditures by the number of enrolled students for that year, 49,697; yields an average academic expenditure per student of $19, 598; a paltry sum when compared to athletic expenditures per athlete. The numbers are even worse when one takes into account the $19,598 is financed largely by students in the form of tuition and handed back to them in the form of university services. They pay to learn, while student athletes do not pay to play (one might even go as far to say that the student athletes at UT are PAID to play in the form of very generous fringe benefits).
This brief review of UT’s spending habits highlights a growing trend among many public universities. Public schools, whose primary mission is to offer affordable higher education, are increasingly willing to forgo academic improvement and affordability in favor of athletic name recognition. It is ludicrous and irresponsible for a university to spend over 200 grand per student athlete, while non-athletic students are forced into debt in order to complete their education. A large portion of the money that UT spends on its athletes would be better spent on making UT’s academic programs more affordable and of higher quality. From an economic standpoint, it is hard to fathom that the marginal returns on the football team’s leather recliners and flat screen TVs are higher than the returns to be had from making college affordable enough that students don’t have to take out loans just to buy books.
I imagine that there are two canned and impotent objections that people will have to this blog. First, they might argue that these athletic expenditures are good business for the university, because good athletics yield high name recognition, which increase enrollment, which ultimately yields more academic funds. There may be some truth to this argument, but UT should have all the name recognition it needs in virtue of being a division I school. The expenditures discussed here are simply excessive. I would conjecture any benefits the school derives from sports expenditures are exhausted long before the 200 grand per athlete mark is ever reached. Second, one might argue, as UT indeed does, that since the athletic programs are largely self-supporting the numbers I cite are not particularly important. Absurd. The point of a public university is to provide affordable education. UT’s own mission statement reads, “The mission of The University of Texas at Austin is to achieve excellence in the interrelated areas of undergraduate education, graduate education, research and public service.” I fail to see how a self-supporting athletics program is exempt from this mission statement. The athletics department is part of UT and hence subservient to UT’s super objective, education. Consequently, if revenues brought in from athletics can be better spent on lowering tuition and strengthening the curriculum by all means that is what a university has a responsibility to do.
Jim Coleman is a philosophy and economics undergraduate at Ohio University and a Research Associate ("Whiz Kid") at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.