Terminate Athletics Spending at Smaller State Universities

Nick Zaiac Nov 17, 2015

Education dollars are scarce in Maryland and legislators both on the left and right regularly ask for increases in primary and secondary education spending, both from taxpayers and college students. But not all forms of education spending are equally valuable. Some uses are better than others, as both taxpayers and tuition payers should know.

Maryland universities spend money on projects that have high costs but questionable benefits. Most notable among these is athletics programs. A new report from the Chronicle for Higher Education and the Huffington Post reveals the true cost of these programs to Maryland students (through athletics fees) and taxpayers (through institutional subsidies). The analysis covered five public universities in the state: Towson, Morgan State, Coppin State, the University of Maryland–College Park (UMD), and the University of Maryland–Eastern Shore.

College Park stands apart from the others. Its athletics revenues are high, and subsidies make up a comparatively small portion of overall athletics revenues, at 24.7%. Yet, those subsidies still amounted to over $18 million in 2014.

For the four smaller schools, the spending on athletics looks downright wasteful. In 2014 subsidy percentages of total athletics revenue ranges from high (Coppin State’s 74.7% subsidy) to very high (UMD-Eastern Shore’s 84.8% subsidy). Combined subsidies in 2014 were nearly $35 million, as compared to just a little over $8 million in revenues. That is, taxpayer subsidies and mandatory athletics fees equaled 80.9% of those universities’ athletics budgets.

There may be a case for athletics subsidies at a big-name school such as College Park, but the high subsidies and low non-subsidy revenues at smaller public schools seem hard to justify. These excess costs are borne by normal Marylanders who are simply trying to get an education and, if ticket sales and private fundraising are any indication, do not appreciate being forced to pay for athletics services they do not have an interest in.

Maryland universities should take these numbers as a wake up call. Athletics at mid-tier schools are not sacred cows that should not be cut. These programs are expensive to provide and benefit a relatively low number of students at the cost of all.

What should be done to rein in this excessive athletics spending? The Chronicle/HuffPo analysis suggests a cap on subsidies as a percentage of overall athletics spending. Short of outright cutting of athletics directly, such a cap would be a reasonable move for state legislatures as a protection for university fee-payers from prestige-hungry university administrators. A reasonable level would be for state legislators to cap athletics expenditures at no more than 50% of the combined total institutional subsidies and student fee contributions. This would force each of the state’s smaller schools to make tough choices about what sports are valuable, and what sports are luxuries that fee-payers cannot afford, while leaving College Park’s athletics support unchanged. Further cuts would be valuable, but limiting the level of subsidies would be a sound first step.