Headlines this week within the sports and higher education circles centered on University of Maryland’s Football program that plans to switch conferences, join the Big 10. The reason? Cash, cold hard cash. Apparently Maryland’s athletics programs have been running a deficit of $5 million a year, and are having a hard time making ends meet. Though the headline of this blog post states we shouldn’t‘ care, I suggest we should care, but more about how college athletics dominates and overshadows academics and the education of college kids. Furthermore in Division I and Ivy league schools, sports programs have been known to influence the institutions’ decisions, policies and sometimes even better judgement. It’s about money – money driven by sports fans, television contracts and endorsements, all at the expense of academics.
Let’s look at the parallels between college athletics and college academics to examine why this focus is wrong. Wrong because the focus and attention given to athletic programs (football and basketball for the most part) is totally out of whack. Higher education institutions are in big trouble, with tuition rates that are out of control and shrinking funds for public institutions. Yet the trouble is more than financial. Parents, students and employers are questioning the value of a college degree. Even more so now as students are unable to find jobs when they graduate, and have a boat load of debt. Employers lament that college graduates aren’t skilled for the jobs that they need to fill, can’t communicate effectively or think critically. Many say higher education is in a bubble, and that bubble is going to burst soon. It is unsustainable. Not to mention that the traditional modes of higher education appear unable to adapt to the needs of our global and digital culture.
The Cost of College Athletics
College athletics programs are expensive to run and the majority of programs don’t generate profits. Building stadiums to hold the fans is expensive (granted stadiums are usually funded with outside donations and ticket sales). So is building athletic facilities for teams, training equipment, coaches salaries, and of course conference fees. Don’t forget the administrative costs, travel costs, and if a school breaks NCAA rules or the law, there are court fees, payouts, lawyer fees etc. It’s expensive. No wonder there are deficits. This is why University of Maryland jumped ship and went to the Big 10. The athletics department was running a deficit as mentioned above, which forced them to cut seven of its 27 varsity sports teams this past summer. Yet things are looking much brighter this month with an infusion of cash on its way. And according to University of Maryland, “By being members of the Big Ten Conference, we will be able to ensure the financial sustainability of Maryland athletics for decades to come.” Yet higher education institutions may look much different in decades to come.
The Academic Deficit
Financial: Off the field and in the lecture halls, we have problems too. Tuition for higher education as increased over 1,000% since 1978, far outpacing the cost of other consumable good or service, including medical care. Yet the quality of education is declining, the current system is failing, falling under a mound of debt that is being passed on to students. Student debt is an economic concern, more than two-thirds of student graduate with significant debt load and many are unable to find full-time jobs.
The academic performance of students is also declining in a big way. SAT scores for 2011 declined for the third year in row, and students do less work in college now than ever before. The bright side is there are numerous models of education for higher ed coming forth that defy traditional education models. These new models focus on lowering costs, increasing access for students and improving quality. These schools focus on student learning, attempt to fix the system by preparing students for jobs of the 21st century. Higher ed needs to reform and adapt to meet the needs of today’s students. Does college athletics fit into this new model?
What is more Important?
I believe [sadly] that if the public were surveyed about what would be more important, either saving academic programs of a school or the football program (or basketball), that a significant number would vote for the sports programs. Yes, we have a problem. We need to start asking questions to solve this problem – what is the purpose of higher education? What is the role of college sports programs in academic institutions? How are students being served by college sports? These questions have no easy answers. I’ve included several articles and statistics below that readers may find interesting and helpful when considering these questions. My goal is to motivate readers to support academics, promote scholarship and help prepare our young people so that they become good citizens, self-sufficient adults, and life-long learners. Does a multimillion dollar college football program contribute to this?
Innovative Higher Ed Institutions (some without college athletic programs)
Inventing a New Kind of College, by Emily Hanford, American RadioWorks
University Now, Making Higher Education Affordable to Everyone
Southern New Hampshire University, Innovation U