In college sports, do big games lead to big fees for students?

two college football playersIt's not a stretch to say that, for many college students, the best moments of their university years rage by in a blur of tailgaters and giant foam fingers.

At most major universities nationwide, college campus culture and athletics exist like conjoined siblings: fused from the moment of conception and hard-wired into each others' DNA. But all the "rah-rah" of a premier college sports team requires some serious "cha-ching" to maintain its momentum -- and a series of recent articles in USA Today might leave students wondering whether the cost of attending a school with top-tier athletic programs has grown too heavy to bear.

In an October piece titled "How student fees boost college sports amid rising budgets," USA Today found that student fees allocated to athletics are "soaring." The newspaper found that such fees jumped by a rate of 18% since 2005, as universities attempt to make up for athletic funding losses during the recent economic recession by piling additional fees on top of student tuition bills.

The piece -- part of an ongoing series investigating college athletic budgets -- also called rising athletic costs "a key force in the rapidly escalating cost of higher education," and said that amounts going to athletics account for as much as 23% of the annual bill for students at public NCAA Division I schools.

The article also suggested, as did an earlier USA Today story in September, that because schools don't disclose fee allocations on tuition bills, many students and parents don't realize that the majority of the fees they pay on top of tuition end up in athletic department coffers.

Additionally, USA Today reporters found that most students don't value value athletics enough to justify the high proportion of student fees that they take up -- all of which suggest that it might be time for college students to re-evaluate whether those big-game moments and epic tailgaters really justify such a spike in fees.

Do college sports really account for such a significant part of the rising cost of attending college? Not according to Keith Babb, the senior national scouting director vice president for NCSA athletic recruiting, who told Money College that attempts to blame the rising cost of college on athletic programs exaggerate sports budgets while ignoring other issues such as growing student debt and increased administrative costs at universities.

As evidence, Babb pointed to a September article in university watchdog magazine Minding The Campus (as well as a series of other articles indexed here) that pointed to the college "debt bubble" -- a chain reaction of relaxed standards from student lenders and liberal student borrowing - as the most important factor in mounting higher education costs.

"The biggest cause of the skyrocketing cost of college," Babb said, "is the increase in the number of administrators and the ease of getting student loans. As you'll see [if you read the articles], college athletics is just a tiny drop in the bucket of the cost of college."

Still, it seems difficult to argue that top-shelf sports programs come cheap for students. The NCSA recently released its annual Collegiate Power Rankings, which evaluate the particular strengths of colleges for prospective student-athletes by averaging together a number of other scores and rankings from outlets like U.S. News & World Report.

Of the NCSA's overall top ten colleges for student-athletes for 2010, Princeton ranks as the cheapest school in terms of attendance costs, with a combined tuition-and-fee total of $36,640 per year. That's not a figure to brush off lightly, and several of the other top-ranked colleges exceed $50,000 for tuition and fees, not including room and board.

The NCAA itself recently weighed in on the debate over the costs and fiscal benefits of college athletics in an August report on the NCAA website, which found that revenues from college sports programs at most Division I institutions had slumped below the level of their expenses. The drop in revenues from college sports, the NCAA found, has created "more of a burden on institutional allocations" - including student fees - to balance athletic budgets.

NCAA Interim President Jim Isch, quoted in the piece, warned that future reports on athletic costs might reveal "more of the same." However, Isch also refused to chalk up the growing burden on students to out-of-control spending in service of high-profile athletic programs, as USA Today suggested in its series.

"While some might be quick to claim that the increases are the result of runaway spending," Isch said according to the NCAA's website, "the more likely scenario is that due to the economy, institutions did not realize anticipated revenue to keep up with fixed costs."

In other words, the rising tide of student fees allocated to athletics might simply amount to a dam-plugging measure by schools during the current recession, rather than a long-term trend where sports programs gobble up ever-bigger shares of student fees. Either way, though, it seems that for at least as long as the current economic cloud hangs overhead, the fees college students pay toward their athletic programs will only be heading one way -- and it's the same direction all those big foam fingers are pointing on game day.
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