Academic Spending vs. Athletic Spending: Who Wins?

Donna M. Desroches

This brief highlights recent trends in athletic and academic spending at public Division I colleges and universities between 2005 and 2010, which show that:

  • Athletic departments spend far more per athlete than institutions spend to educate the average student—typically three to six times as much; among Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) institutions, median athletic spending was nearly $92,000 per athlete in 2010, while median academic spending per full-time equivalent (FTE) student was less than $14,000 in these same universities.
  • Athletic costs increased at least twice as fast as academic spending, on a per-capita basis across each of the three Division I subdivisions.
  • Although academic resources were strained after the recent recession, only the FBS reined in escalating athletic spending per athlete in 2010; nevertheless, athletic subsidies per athlete continued to increase in all subdivisions despite these financial constraints.
  • Very few Division I athletic departments are self-funded; instead, most programs rely on athletic subsidies from institutions and students. However, the largest per-athlete subsidies are in those subdivisions with the lowest spending per athlete. Without access to other large revenue streams, these programs have increasingly turned to their institutions to finance additional athletic spending.

College athletics certainly provide nonfinancial benefits that are important to institutions, such as campus spirit, name recognition, and reputation. But other campus benefits appear modest, with boosts in applications, enrollments, or fundraising often a short-lived bonus resulting from a championship season.

Despite large budgets, those in the top echelon of spending in the FBS may indeed impart less of a financial burden on their own institutions, but the vast majority of Division I colleges and universities rely heavily on institutional support as they try to keep up. Everyone likes a winning team, but what is the cost?