Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Knight on the Knights

If you or one of your children are going to college, you know how much the cost of a college degree has increased over the decades. Students and their families are forced to go into significant debt even as the job market for college graduates shrinks. Students from lower income families are especially disadvantaged because loans are harder to come by. Unless the student is fortunate to have garnered a full scholarship, you are also paying a hidden tax – the cost of college athletics.

It’s time to change the tuition funding playbook.

Proponents of big, flashy athletic programs say that intercollegiate athletics brings in lots of revenue. That’s true. But according to a report by the Knight Commission, only seven of the hundreds of institutions of higher learning pumped this revenue back into academic programs. The rest of them appropriated funds that could be used to reduce tuition to subsidize athletics.

The commission recommendations fall into the areas of financial transparency and prioritizing academics for both the institution and the student-athletes.  But the recommendations of the Knight Commission don’t go far enough.

College athletics provides valuable life lessons in hard work, team building, and coping with disappointment. But it has also become a P&L center (with emphasis on the “loss”) for institutions whose primary function should be academics and research.

These are tough times, and we don’t need incremental change – we need a “hail Mary” pass.

The state legislature should pass a law, and the governor should sign it, that requires athletic programs in state-supported universities to operate under a separate financial accounting system. Expenditures should not exceed revenue, just as these legislators advocate for government entities.

If our legislators are honest, they would adopt this proposal. After all, they require that educational institutions should be “run as a business”, and clearly intercollegiate athletics, with their massive television revenues, is a business. By separating the finances of athletics from academics and research, citizens, students, and parents would have visibility into the real cost of these programs and the drain of funds from the institution’s primary functions would stop.

For institutions like Rutgers, New Jersey’s State University, it would mean some cutbacks in the scope of their athletic programs. Maybe instead of having the football team travel to Louisville, Chapel Hill, and New Orleans, they should play teams from the New York and Philadelphia area schools. Instead of granting full scholarships based on athletic performance, they should consider academic potential.

The quality of play may go down. But the excitement and enthusiasm would remain. After all, these players are first and foremost students and like their non-athlete peers, they deserve the best education that money can buy.

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