Garrett Senney: Is It Time to Divorce Collegiate Athletics from Education?

The following opinion and analysis is provided by Garrett Senney, Ph.D., Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.  June 4, 2017

According to USA Today’s most recent analysis on the NCAA’s Division I athletics, a mere 5.2% of public university athletic departments do not rely on support from institutional subsidies (student fees, state money, etc.) to facilitate their operations. The successful few are only capable of independent operation due to their primetime football programs, which generate net revenues large enough to support the cost of the other 30+ varsity sports that universities generally offer. For the majority of schools, an athletic department is a net expense, costing the average university about $11.5 million in 2015.

In today’s collegiate sports landscape, spending money is a requirement to remaining competitive, and as a result, universities rush to build newer and fancier athletic facilities and to retain coaching talent with increasingly lucrative contracts. In 2016, the highest paid public employee in 39 states was a college football or basketball coach (Comen et al. 2016). These expenditures, according to the Knight Commission, are largely funded through general student fees, which have been trending upwards for years. The Center for College Affordability and Productivity reports that student fees destined for athletic department subsidies are increasing at a rate that is 13% higher than tuition rate increases, and can make up nearly 80% of the total fees charged to students. In total, it is estimated American college students borrow nearly $4 billion per year to cover the costs of athletic departments (Ridpath et al. 2015). A substantial proportion of the increase in the cost of higher education is attributable to the subsidies that athletic departments receive.

If a university’s primary purpose is to educate and empower students, do college sports real provide a meaningful value to the university in support of that mission? If there is any value to college athletics, can it be obtained via a less expensive way? I believe that the answer to both of these questions is yes. Athletics can be an excellent way for students to learn and develop life skills that are not readily available in the classroom like leadership, teamwork, and perseverance. However, the current system is conferring this benefit to too few students while exerting a significant cost on too many.

One solution is to separate athletics from education and make current athletic departments self-financed, non-profit independent entities that are merely affiliated with their home institution. These entities would be akin to club sports teams that pay the university rent to use its facilities and generate revenue from ticket sales, TV deals, and potentially tax deductible donations. To retain the spirit of amateurism of college sports, but to be more inclusive, these club teams could let anyone without professional experience be eligible to try out and make the team, regardless of their enrollment status. Athletes would not have to be students at the affiliated schools, unless they met the necessary standards of that school and they actually desired to be students.

This separation of education and athletics would remove the incentive to bend admission standards and inflate grades for student athletics that currently plagues the NCAA. Student athletes graduate college at a much lower rate than their general student peers, and that gap has been increasingly widening over time (College Sport Research Institute, 2016). Additionally, since this scheme would put athletics outside the NCAA, players could get paid fair wages for their services like any other job. These club teams would provide the majority of the athletic benefits for students without the high costs currently associated with college sports. By downsizing the current extent of college athletics, universities would be better equipped to actually fulfill their stated missions.