Friday, November 07, 2008

Show me your budget, I’ll tell you your priorities

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


capeman said...

"Do Arkansas and Alabama really value athletics more than half as much as they value academics?"

You said it, guys, and having a bit of familiarity with those places, I can tell you that you said it right.

"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."

I suspect you guys are very naive. If anybody tried to change the situation at U. Oklahoma, they would be run our of town or worse. At Oklahoma State, Boone Pickens gave a huge amount of dough to -- you guessed it -- the athletic program. At Nebraska, as I recall, some years ago Graham Spanier was president, and he fired the football coach for overstepping. And Dr. Spanier was soon looking for work himself. Ended up OK, but it goes to show you.

I think that Vedder's operation is naive and quixotic. No part of it, however, is more quixotic than the railing against athletics. It is one of the few things with which I agree. But I don't ever expect to see things change, not unless there is a complete economic depression or something of that scale.

johncolton said...

This 'research' is terribly flawed. It is comparing instructional expenditures to athletic expenditures without regard for the size and composition (graduate and undergraduate) of the student population -- to say nothing of revenue sources. As a result, smaller schools competing at the highest level of NCAA intercollegiate athletics obviously face a stacked deck and invariably skewed ratios in this survey that breaks down spending on a per student basis.

With approximately 19,000 students, the University of Arkansas -- which was singled out for considerable criticism in this article -- is one of the smallest schools in the high-profile Southeastern Conference. Yet this detail clearly is not factored in.

An even worse flaw in the research deals with the part of the article which points out that 19 schools realized positive revenues from intercollegiate athletics. This is an important statistic that needs to be applied to spending statistics as a relevant function of expenditures for schools listed on the researchers' "wall-of-shame." They fail miserably in this vein.

If the researchers had done that due and just diligence, they'd find that the No. 1 school on that aforementioned list -- the University of Arkansas -- is among those 19 revenue-producing, self-supporting universities.

Moreover, the University of Arkansas -- presumably like most of the other revenue-positive schools -- does not use state tax dollars or tuition revenue to support athletics. Arkansas does not have a student fee for athletics. It does not transfer funds from the instructional budget of the university for athletics. It does not charge students admission to sporting events other than football and men's basketball. I presume this also was overlooked by the researchers.

Furthermore, athletics provides a source of pride for the university that can pay dividends in terms of private support. While much of that support is directed to athletics, such support further solidifies its self-supporting status and occasionally generates philanthropic opportunities for non-athletic priorities at the institution. Admittedly, this is a less tangible consideration, but a valid one nonetheless.

Clearly, this is shallow research lacking basic analytical insight, and likely wouldn't pass muster in a basic research course at Arkansas.