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Are Students Unfairly Subsidizing Intercollegiate Athletic Programs?


Recently, there has been much discussion regarding the amount which colleges and universities are charging their students to assist in funding intercollegiate athletic programs. Gone are the days when student fees were considered a minor portion of paying for a college education. Currently, students pay fees for athletics, technology, student activities, parking, ID cards, recreation centers, and so forth. Consequently, student fees have become a significant part of the cost of attending college.

The rise in student fees for athletic programs certainly parallels the increased pressure on major college programs to remain competitive, especially at NCAA Division I football-playing institutions. By trying to remain competitive, programs have engaged in an ever-increasing “arms race,” in which many programs not only offer “top dollar” salaries to successful coaches but build lavish offices, luxurious weight rooms and of course, bigger and better competitive venues.

The cost of athletics fees is more reasonable at major conference schools in Division I. For example, the University of Tennessee, a member of the Southeastern Conference, does not charge student athletics fees (3). With an annual budget of over $110 million, Ohio State University (Big 10 Conference) only charges students a $25 per quarter student activity fee, from which an unstated portion is contributed to the athletic department (2). Of course, most programs that participate in major conferences are Bowl Championship Series (BCS) members. They generate substantial income; thus, reliance on student fees is unnecessary.

On the other hand, athletic programs in lesser-known conferences that are not BCS members and do not have the benefit of significant revenue streams must accordingly look to student fees for subsistence. These institutions are typically grouped in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). For instance, student athletics fees at Division I Longwood University (VA), an independent program without a conference affiliation, is about one-fifth ($2,022) of the cost of tuition and fees ($9,855). Radford University (VA), a Division I institution in the Big South Conference, charges students $1,077 per year for athletics (1).

Another way to view the athletics fee landscape is to examine the percentage of athletic department revenue that is derived from the fees that students pay for athletics. For example, at Division I James Madison University (VA), a member of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), 83% of revenue generated by the athletic department originates from such fees. At fellow CAA member institution George Mason University (VA), student athletics fees are responsible for 70% of athletic department revenue. And, at Division I Norfolk State University (VA), a member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, $8.3 million of its $10 million revenue budget (83%) was garnered from student athletics fees (1).

It is becoming increasingly clear that student athletics fees make up a significant portion of the cost of higher education. If these fees continue to rise, negative effects will certainly be experienced at those institutions raising fees. Typically, college students can be quite vocal when displeased; could we see some form of rebellion against student athletic fees in the near future? Hence, it will be incumbent upon administrators in higher education to make critical decisions regarding the level at which intercollegiate athletics can be successfully and equitably funded at their respective institutions.


De Vise, D. (2010, October 24). Athletic fees are a large, and sometimes hidden, cost at colleges. The Washington Post.

The Ohio State University. (2010). Tuition and Fees. Retrieved from http://www.osu.edu.

University of Tennessee. (2010). Charges and Fees/Tuition. Retrieved from http://web.utk.edu/~bursar/volxfees.html

Dr. Bogar is the Dean of Student Services for the United States Sports Academy. He has served as director of athletics for the University of Mobile, and Loyola University in New Orleans, and has coached track and swimming.


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