In its desperation to make big-time college athletics look more profitable, the National College Athletic Association is reportedly considering a rule change that would allow schools to count subsidies from student-fee accounts as sports revenue. This is based on the highly dubious idea that students get back their fee dollars in the form of cut-rate tickets to games. But at public universities, especially, student fees are used to fund a range of college programs and have no organic connection to sports. The proposed rule change is nothing more than an accounting trick to hide deficits in often profligate sports departments.
Big-time college athletic spending today outstrips academic spending 7 to 1 on a per-student basis, according to the Delta Cost Project. Yet only 23 of 228 Division 1 public school athletic departments make money, according to USA Today. With Education Secretary Arne Duncan saying sports are on an “unsustainable path,” and with faculty bemoaning class cuts, colleges have come under increasing pressure to justify sports subsidies.
Part of the anger involves mandatory student fees siphoned off to prop up sports. Thus, the NCAA is considering a plan to count the fees as payments for free or reduced-price tickets. Of course, there are many reasons that students are given free or reduced-price tickets — from promoting school spirit to filling the largely empty stadiums of the weaker programs — and thus counting them as seats purchased by student fees is misleading, to say the least.
Student fees make up a very small portion of athletic revenues at the most successful Division 1 programs that rake in ticket sales and television money. But in the bottom half of the division, which often includes schools that are unrealistically straining to crack into the big time, the fees comprise between 16 percent and 31 percent of athletic funds, according to the Delta Cost Project. That is too significant a subsidy to hide under a walnut shell. Rather than try to dazzle fans with fancy accounting, the NCAA should explore ways to get sports on a truly sustainable path.