By: Matthew Denhart and Robert Villwock
Intercollegiate athletics were born in 1852 when Harvard and Yale first squared off in their now annual rowing competition on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Since that time the debate over the appropriate role of athletics at institutions of higher education has raged. Many argue that athletics enhance the undergraduate experience by teaching teamwork and leadership skills to athletes while building a sense of community among the wider student body. Yet many others disagree claiming that athletics is a distraction to the core academic mission of a university. Regardless of this debate, almost everyone would agree that academics should be by far the top priority of any institution of higher learning.
Yet our findings show that at several Division 1-A schools, athletic expenses per student are alarmingly large compared with instructional expenses per student. For example, using data reported by the U.S. Department of Education, we calculate that at the University of Arkansas total athletic expenses equal 56.5 percent of total instructional expenditures (as reported through the Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data Source—IPEDS). Several other schools have a shamefully high ratio of athletic to instruction spending as well. At the University of Alabama it’s 50.2 percent, Tulsa comes in at 48.2 percent and Nebraska’s figure is just under 46 percent. Listed below is our “Wall of Shame” with the 10 schools reporting the highest athletic/instruction spending ratio among the 119 Division 1-A schools.
1. University of Arkansas 56.5%
2. University of Alabama 50.2%
3. Tulsa University 48.1%
4. University of Nebraska 45.9%
5. Texas Christian University 43.2%
6. Oklahoma University 41.2%
7. Auburn University 40.8%
8. University of Mississippi 35.6%
9. Louisiana State University 33.8%
10. Clemson University 33.4%
These figures are astounding. Do Arkansas and Alabama really value athletics more than half as much as they value academics? This seems hard to believe as it would imply athletics are half as important to the institution’s mission as educating students. Our guess is that nobody from either of these schools would ever boast such a thing, however that is what their budgets suggest. Are students, their parents and taxpayers aware of this scandal? If such data was more transparent and available we would suspect there would be a loud public outcry.
To be fair, athletic department expenditures are fairly complex, and not all of the total expenses are being footed directly by the school itself. Rather, athletic programs do generate considerable revenue that help defray these costs. However, in 2006 only 19 Division 1-A institutions realized positive net revenues from athletics. The remaining 100 programs all lost money and had to be subsidized by allocated funds from the wider institutional budget. The claim that athletics is a major money-maker is a false proposition for 84 percent of schools. Thus, the figures reported above are still a substantial finding.
A number of schools report more responsible athletics to instruction expenditure ratios. The lowest of such ratios is Vanderbilt at 6.4 percent, followed by UCLA (a public school) at 7.1 percent. Listed below is our “Wall of Fame” with the five institutions reporting the lowest athletics/instruction ratio. It is not surprising that the top four schools listed are considered to be among the best public and private institutions in the country.
1. Vanderbilt University 6.4%
2. University of California, Los Angeles 7.1%
3. University of Washington 7.3%
4. Stanford University 7.5%
5. SUNY-Buffalo 7.6%
Collegiate athletics are certainly a staple of American culture, and as avid sports fans ourselves we would not wish to see them disappear. There is nothing quite like waking up on a Saturday morning to watch College Gameday over breakfast, or rooting on the basketball team as they push toward the NCAA tournament. However, the instruction of students, who are paying huge tuition bills, should be the academy’s primary focus. Intercollegiate athletics have come a long way since that day in 1852 when Harvard defeated Yale on the lake. We need to refocus our attention on what is truly important to a university, and our budgets need to reflect that commitment to education.
Matthew Denhart and Robert Villwock are research associates at CCAP and undergraduate students at Ohio University