Crisis, what (funding) crisis?

Amid funding crisis, college athletics soak up subsidies, fees

By Jack Gillum, Jodi Upton and Steve Berkowitz, USA TODAY

More than $800 million in student fees and university subsidies are propping up athletic programs at the nation’s top sports colleges, including hundreds of millions in the richest conferences, a USA TODAY analysis found.

The subsidies have reached that level amid a continuing crisis in higher education funding.

At some of the schools where athletics is most heavily subsidized, faculty salaries have dipped, state-funded financial aid is drying up and students are bracing for tuition and fee increases.

Taken together, the subsidies for athletics at 99 public schools in the NCAA’s 120-member Football Bowl Subdivision grew about 20% in four years, from $685 million in 2005 to $826 million in 2008, after adjusting for inflation.

At more than a third of those schools, the percentage of athletic department revenue coming from subsidies grew during the four-year period studied.

"The word I would use is ‘appalling,’ " says Carole Browne, a professor at Wake Forest who co-chairs the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a national faculty group that advocates for athletics reform.

“It’s appalling in the big picture and representative of what is going on in athletics with coaches’ salaries and facilities. It’s part of a bigger problem.”

USA TODAY, through open-records requests, obtained four years of financial reports schools must send annually to the NCAA. The newspaper examined allocated revenue from student fees, university and state sources.

Of the 30 public schools where the percentage of athletics revenue coming from allocated sources rose the most from 2005 to 2008, about half are from schools in the power conferences, often assumed to be self-supporting. The '09 reports, which might show bigger gaps because of the recession, are due Friday.

At the University of Cincinnati, a Big East Conference school, subsidies grew from 26.7% ($5.6 million) of athletics revenue in 2005 to 33.1% ($10.7 million) in '08. That made Cincinnati the power-conference public school where reliance on subsidies grew most during the years studied. UC athletics also has a $24 million operating debt.

“The ultimate goal is to have the athletics department running on its own,” said Tim Lolli, the student body president. “But students here love big-time athletics … and they are willing and eager to help athletics as much as possible.”

Cincinnati has trimmed its budget. The faculty has faced state budget cuts, hiring “frosts” and some wage freezes. Bigger class loads are coming, faculty chairwoman Marla Hall said.

Scholarships to three sports, including men’s track and field, were cut last year, coach Bill Schnier said. But new money might not bring them back.

“If (college) sports have to match the pros dollar-for-dollar in salaries and facilities, then we’ll have to find more money next year, and the year after that, and the year after that,” Schnier said. “Someone has to put an end to this madness.”

Nebraska and Louisiana State were the only schools whose athletics programs reported receiving no subsidies in each of the four years studied.