By Richard Vedder
I like the South, and American universities in the south have improved relative to national norms a lot over the decades. So the heading on this blog is a bit unfair, a gross generalization. But it is true that the very best top flight institutions of higher learning are underrepresented in the South, although I think Virginia, along with California, has the best quality public universities in the United States.
But the good ole boy mentality still runs strong in the South. Football is far more important than learning at many schools. The University of Alabama has cancelled classes for THREE days to have the students focus on what is truly important in life --a bunch of its boys throwing a ball around in a match against a bunch of Texans. Not one day of class cancellations, not two but three. Harvard would not do that. Oxford would not do that. Michigan or Berkeley would not do that, but in Alabama football is king and academics play second fiddle. I certainly would not recommend the University of Alabama to any daughter or son of my friends. One southern school is in some hot water now for using "hostesses" (cute college coeds) to lure high school senior boys to their schools to play football - a reminder of the sex scandal at the University of Colorado a few years back.
Meanwhile, at my university, which had a reasonably decent football team (9 and 4), the grown ups (trustees, alums, etc.) are all excited that we made some third rate bowl in that garden spot of America, Detroit, playing the second best school in West Virginia. We will receive a few hundred thousand dollars in revenue, and spend far more than that in bribing students and others to attend the game so attendance is not embarrassingly low. We spend roughly $15 million a year subsidizing intercollegiate athletics, probably more than we spend on some of our academic colleges. This is not unique.
However, some schools are starting to reassess their priorities. Hofstra and Northeastern have dropped football, for example. Other presidents are talking of dropping out of BCS level football competition. Maybe school spirit will remain, alumni will donate, etc. even if the school competes at a less expensive level. In reality, of course, the evidence is that, on average, the claims that intercollegiate athletics confers enormous external benefits on schools (especially donations) are simply bunk.
When are the university presidents collectively going to propose radical changes? When will some of them get the courage to "just say no" to the Bubbas who insist on high cost programs? To be sure, there are always the Ohio State type schools that break even on intercollegiate sports. Remember, however, every time someone wins a match, someone else loses. Not everyone can be Ohio State.