Every crisis creates an opportunity and the current economic state has provided opportunity for the critics of college sports to take aim at some of the excesses in college athletics. The overwhelming refrain from the critics and the focus of countless articles is "college sports loses money" with only about 20 athletic programs in the country breaking even or turning a profit.
"Universities across the country are on the horns of a dilemma,” said Dr. William "Brit” Kirwan, co-chairman of the Knight Commission and chancellor of the University of Maryland system. "We’ve built this enterprise with an insatiable appetite but we no longer have the revenue to feed it. We’re going to have to come to grips with that fact and move to a more rational model.” (Click here for the full article).
The context of Kirwan's comments is athletic departments. But read the above paragraph again - his comments could just as easily apply to higher education generally. What Kirwan wittingly or unwittingly reveals is that it is more than just athletics that has an insatiable appetite.
Tony Weaver's UltimateSportsInsider.com post - Pursuit of Prestige - frames the issue nicely. Colleges and universities are competing for students, faculty and staff, government dollars, donations and other resources to climb over each other to the top of the rankings in U.S. News and World Report, The Princeton Review, and a host of other similar publications.
And how are they climbing the ladder? The same way as college athletics - "with an insatiable appetite that lacks the revenue to feed it." The institutions that have fared best in the current crisis are those who are largely dependent on tuition and lived within their tuition-based means for years while others were growing along with the educational funding bubble. Today, state institutions have been hammered due to falling tax revenues that were once reasonably strong. Likewise, institutions with large endowments and consistent double digit growth became quickly accustomed to the comfort of an ever expanding budget. All of those gains are gone and with tuition costs at some institutions now exceeding $50,000 annually, tuition increases can't close the revenue gap.
Despite the economic downturn, college athletics for many universities is still one of the best vehicles available for:
- providing a meaningful and differentiating educational experience for the student athlete participants;
- building a recognizable brand for an institution;
- building town and gown relationships,
- fund raising (either directly for their own programs or as a vehicle around which to fund raise for other areas);
- providing interaction between schools that are regularly covered by the media with clear-cut winners and losers instead of imprecise rankings of hard to assess academic departments;
- fun and building campus community.
- questions of affordability due to significant tuition costs and mounting student debt;
- online education that erodes the standing of traditional bricks and mortar educational providers;
- spiraling costs;
- increasing mental health issues, alcohol and drug abuse among students;
- mission creep and a lack of mission clarity.