“The erosion of higher ed: Dollars are slipping away from teaching to sports

Published in The News Tribune, July 25, 2010

It might seem odd that the president of a world-class institution of higher education would leave his position to head up a large entertainment conglomeration.  And Mark Emmert’s decision to leave UW for the NCAA was just that.   

Yet is it so odd?  After all, the NCAA is an association of about 1,200 colleges across the nation, with a commitment “to the highest levels of integrity and sportsmanship… and excellence in the classroom”.  But make no mistake about it:  in practice, the NCAA is best compared with the NBA, MLB or NFL, meaning that it coordinates sporting events for its members – and entertainment for the fans — with the purpose of making money.  And by generating and distributing almost ¾ billion dollars to colleges and universities, the NCAA (like its counterparts in professional sports) is pretty successful at what it does. 


But the oddity of college sports  —  entertainment, a commercial enterprise, and an appendage to higher education – means that it occasionally generates controversy.   


For instance, a recent report by the Knight Commission on schools with Division 1A football teams (such as the UW) found that these schools typically spend 4 to 11 times more on athletic expenditures for each of their intercollegiate student-athletes, than they do on educational and support services for each of their students.   At PAC-10 schools, for example, a total of $95,000 in athletic support was spent on the typical athlete in 2008, while $15,000 was spent on educating the typical student.


Moreover, the gap between per-student versus per-athlete spending has grown noticeably over the last few years.  Most amazingly, a large majority of the 220 schools examined by the Knight Commission relied partly on student fees and state revenue to meet its athletic expenses.   Does this list include the UW or WSU?   Unfortunately, the NCAA does not release data for individual schools – as you can imagine, its member schools have little interest in divulging such information — so it is very difficult to answer that question.


As Emmert knows, much of what the NCAA does and will continue to do is to try to keep college sports from being dragged into a spotlight such as the Knight Commission’s report.


Other trends in higher education also deserve but are mostly escaping public scrutiny.  Another study released this month examined spending within higher education, and reports some very surprising developments.  The Delta Cost Project found one thing that is not surprising:   higher education has been increasingly squeezed over the last decade, with stagnant or decreasing state support of public institutions.    These institutions have countered this trend by raising tuition; over the last decade, tuition has risen by 40 percent.

But here’s what the Delta report tells you that you probably don’t know:  at the same time that public institutions have been receiving fewer public dollars, proportionately more money has been spent for non-instructional purposes.   That’s right, just when higher education is being pinched for resources, there has been a shift away from spending on educational instruction, and toward (in particular) student services, intramural athletics and administrative expenses. 


In public institutions, somewhere between 50-60 percent of each dollar now goes for instruction, representing about a 4 percent decrease from a decade ago.  Interestingly, this trend has been occurring in public research universities, regional colleges and community colleges, as well as in private universities.  One expert of higher education terms this trend “the country-clubization of the American university”, and says that it is a reflection of the increased pressure colleges feel to provide the amenities and services that attract students.   


Of course as the Delta report points out, an increased emphasis on student support, student services, academic support and administration may be a good way to best support colleges’ core educational mission.  Supporting the educational mission of colleges is certainly the justification advanced by the NCAA on the importance of intercollegiate athletics.


However, as a general rule, the easier it is for an organization to measure what it is supposed to produce, the more of a singular focus that organization tends to have.  By its nature, education – particularly educational quality — is a difficult product to measure.   One of the consequences of this is that it is easier for institutions of higher education to take their eye off the ball, and pursue agendas that may not have much to do with the basic product of delivering a high quality education to its students.


As the future head of the NCAA, Emmert will be continually confronted with the challenge of managing big business college sports while maintaining its legitimacy within our higher educational system.  What the Knight and Delta reports indicate, however, is that higher education needs greater transparency in how its funds are used, what these funds are buying, and how expenditures relate to the provision of a quality education that should be its primary mission.