Keeping Score

Athletics Over Academics: The Growing College Sports Spending Gap

On a per student basis, in an era of tight budgets, schools are spending more on athletics than academics. Much more.

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Jamie Martin, file / AP

Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron (10) reacts after an Alabama field goal against Georgia during the first half of the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game in Atlanta Dec. 1, 2012.

If you think that American higher education doesn’t have its priorities straight, that schools focus way too much on sports, a new study may make you scream.

On Wednesday, the American Institutes for Research released a comprehensive report on college sports spending. Some of the key findings:

*  In 2010, among public institutions with teams in the “Football Bowl Subdivision” — formerly known as Division IA, colloquially known as “major college football” — median spending per athlete was $92,000. Meanwhile, median academic spending per full-time equivalent student was $14,000 at these schools.

(MORE: The College Football Top 25 – As Ranked By Academics)

* Schools in the Southeastern Conference are the biggest athletic spenders, and have the widest gap between school spending and sports spending. Median athletic spending, per athlete, was $163,931 in the SEC in 2010; the median academic spending, per student, that year was $13,390. So on a per capita basis, SEC schools spent 12.2 times as much on sports than on academics (note: all the data, throughout the study, are for public institutions only). That’s the largest gap among the so-called “BCS ” conferences, which include the SEC, Big 12, Pac-10 (now the Pac-12), Big East, Big Ten and Big East. The Big East has the smallest gap. Spending per athlete in 2010 was $91,936; that was 6.7 times more than academic spending per student.

* Spending on sports is rising much faster than spending on schools. Among those schools with major college football teams, spending per athlete increased 51% between 2005 and 2010. Meanwhile, per student academic spending rose 23%.

* What’s perhaps most disturbing is that even during the recession, athletic subsidies — money from other university resources, student fees, or state appropriations used to support sports — were growing at a much faster rate than overall per capita school spending. For the Football Bowl Subdivision Schools, for example, athletic subsidies per athlete spiked 61% between 2005 and 2010 (compared with the 23% rise for per student academic spending).

The full study is worth a read, to get a fuller sense of the academic-athletic spending gaps across a broad range of institutions. Don’t expect the numbers to shrink. As the top athletic schools pursue conference realignment and lucrative television contracts, the smaller schools will have to spend even more to remain competitive. The college sports arms race is only heating up. “Schools should pay attention to these differences,” says Donna Desrochers, author of the study, and a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research. “In times of tight budgets, the numbers don’t seem reasonable.” At the end of the study, Desrochers writes: “Disparities in academic and athletic spending suggest that participating public college and universities reexamine their game plans.”

Sounds like the right call.

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