Annual spending on sports by public universities in six big-time conferences like the SEC and Big 12 has passed $100,000 per athlete — about six to 12 times the amount those universities are spending per student on academics, according to a study released Wednesday to greet college presidents arriving at the NCAA's annual meeting in Texas.
The study finds the largest gap by far in the Southeastern Conference, which combines relatively low academic spending and explosive coaching salaries. Median athletic spending there totaled nearly $164,000 per athlete in 2010. That is more than 12 times the $13,390 that SEC schools spent per student for academic expenses, including instructional costs and student services.
The schools of the Pac-10 (now the Pac 12), Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten and Big East also averaged six-figure spending per student athlete in 2010, the study finds. Across Division I, athletic spending —though still smaller in absolute terms — rose twice as fast as academic spending between 2005 and 2010. During that period, the schools competing in the top-level Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) of the NCAA upped their athletic expenditures on average $6,200 per athlete each year, according to data compiled by the Delta Cost Project at American Institutes for Research as part of an ongoing project with the pro-reform Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
The report does not provide information about ratios at individual institutions.
Overall, FBS schools spent on average $92,000 per athlete in 2010, or just under seven times what they were spending per student on academics at a time of falling state funding for higher education in much of the country, and tuition increases widely outpacing inflation. The report did find, however, the growth rate seemed to be slowing.
The figures likely won't shock college presidents arriving in Grapevine, Texas, for the NCAA convention, but they will highlight their rising concern over out-of-control spending on intercollegiate athletics that threatens to sink budgets and compromise their academic missions. Some want the NCAA to do more to address the issue even if it can't legally limit salaries.
"How many sport video analysts do you really need?" said John Dunn, president of Western Michigan University, who gave a talk Tuesday at a preliminary portion of the meeting on rising inequality in college athletics. "How many assistants for a coach — not assistant coaches, (but) assistant office personnel, to keep his life straight?"
"While the NCAA wants to avoid being overly intrusive, they have never had a problem saying there should be x number of coaches and x number of scholarships awarded," he said. "Why not also govern how many ancillary personnel you can have?"
NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson said in a brief emailed statement that colleges make their own spending decisions and "are reluctant to cede authority over their budgets to the NCAA." SEC spokesman Craig Pinkerton said he would have to refer questions to Commissioner Mike Slive, who wasn't available for comment.
The conceit of the study — comparing per capita spending on athletes versus academic spending — carries some caveats. Universities already "spend" widely varying amounts on different types of students; those in majors requiring special equipment, or offering small classes, already benefit from more spending, as might those signing up for extra-curriculars or special tutoring. Knight Commission Executive Director Amy Perko said her group realizes at many institutions athletic spending per athlete will inevitably be higher than academic spending per student.
Also, "academic spending" can be a confusing category, though the study uses federal data universities must report under a precise methodology. While it includes athletic scholarships as athletic spending, for example, institutional financial aid available to other students doesn't count as "academic spending."
Still, the size of the ratios — and the fact that six conferences have broken six figures, up from four a year before — are eye-catching data points showing the extent to which Division I college athletics programs have come to inhabit separate financial universes from the academic institutions whose names they share.
Perko said it's the growing subsidies most universities kick in to cover athletic department budgets that are especially alarming. The Knight Commission has been pushing for the NCAA to incentivize institutions to stay within certain ratios of athletic-to-academic spending, to no avail. The BCS, which is organizing the new college football playoff system separately from the NCAA, has committed to tying 10 percent of the lucrative payout from the new BCS playoff system to academic benchmarks, Perko said, but she wants more done.
While new TV deals will produce more revenue, they will also likely exacerbate inequality. If adopted, recent proposals to pay athletes a stipend would also fuel spending by athletic departments,