Did you know that in your state the highest paid public official is probably a college football or basketball coach? If there is any doubt to how far off track American higher education has wandered from its mission, Infographics spelled it out in a chart that even a University of North Carolina jock can figure out.
In 2011 this growing trend prompted Forbes contributor Steven Salzberg to sound the alarm when he wrote: "The culture of football in American universities is completely out of control…. If we keep it up, the U.S. will eventually be little more than the big, dumb jock on the world stage."
Follow the money
The culprit to this college mission creep is television money. Last year a South Carolina football coach, in response to a proposed nine-game conference football schedule, made the rather candid pronouncement that, "Anything can happen when television starts telling you what to do."
In his world, the NCAA negotiates $10 billion deals for football and basketball broadcast rights. In the most recent March Madness tournament, it was reported that CBS (NYSE: CBS) and Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX) Turner Broadcasting made more than $1 billion in ad revenue off the games.
It's no wonder that many universities and colleges have convinced themselves, with the urging of well-heeled alumni, that it really is necessary to pay the football coach at Alabama $5.5 million and the basketball coach at Duke almost $8 million. In fact on the list of Top 50 Highest Paid Basketball and Football Coaches, the lowest pay is a paltry $1.8 million. This truly is madness, except it's year round, not just in March.
So what is American higher education getting in return for this expensive hero worship?
Higher costs is the most obvious answer. College costs have skyrocketed 500% since 1985, outpacing even medical care (a bargain by comparison at a 300% increase). The return on the investment in our current college system is mixed, at best. About 70% of of college seniors have student loan debt that averages almost $30,000. According to the Civitas Learning, a company that offers digital leaning solutions to student and higher education, out of 26 developed nations, the U.S. now ranks 16th in the world in the number of 25-34 year olds with college degrees. A second study by Univertas 21, a global network of research universities, still ranks the U.S as the "Best Higher Education System" in the world, although much of this ranking is attributed to the U.S. graduate education system.
The pesky facts: Sports don't matter
College sports fans go with the "you have to spend money to make money" theory of college operations. But that time-honored mantra is looking less and less sound, at least for the vast majority of schools. In an article titled "Myth: College Sports Are a Cash Cow" in the American Council of Education, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Georgia analogized that if there were 1,000 athletic programs, 10 would have a net income of $9 million each, but the remaining 990 programs would lose $1 million each.
And in the long run, the performance of the football or basketball team doesn't count for much to the average debt-laden undergraduate. A Gallup-Purdue University survey suggests that varsity college sports don't make much difference to the long-term satisfaction of undergrads, regardless of school size. Post-undergraduate satisfaction at work and high well-being were most highly associated with having good professors. The number of respondents who agreed with the statement, "I was extremely active in extracurricular activates and organizations..." ranked five out of six in statements as a measure of undergraduate satisfaction.
Despite this trend to question the worth of college sports, change is a tough sell. College sports developed side-by-side with the academic tradition in American higher learning and, for many, is an important part of the university experience. As New Yorker columnist Reeves Wiedeman wrote in 2011, "The façade of amateurism broken, might the whole system of college football finally be brought down and rebooted? Probably not. Who, after all, really wants anything to change?"
Players and presidents pushing back
It turns out the players are starting to think about change. Coaches, networks, and some colleges may be getting rich, but the deal for players has not changed for 60 years: tuition and room and board. Recently, the National Labor Relations Board granted football players at Northwestern University the right to form a labor union. Football players have grown weary of serving indentured servitude in a league where schools often earn millions from their 40-plus hour work week in a league that also doubles as a free training program for rich NFL owners.
Colleges are also reconsidering the collegiate sports business and looking for alternatives to create brand awareness and loyalty among its alumni. Webster University outside St. Louis, for example, just won the national college chess championship. Webster University, which pays Grand Master chess coach Susan Polgar (pictured) a reported $250,000 a year, about a tenth of the average football or basketball coach.
"For the first time in the almost 100 history of our university, we are a national champion," said Webster provost Julia Schuster. Schuster said the "there is no doubt" the distinction will be good publicity for the university, which operates 100 satellite campuses around the world, where the value of sports in higher education is viewed with puzzlement. After all, it's easier to make a case for the logistics of chess as promoting a college's mission.
College costs a disruptor
Temple University recently began offering all students $4,000 in grants in exchange for limiting work hours and graduating on time. To pay for the program, President Neil Theobald eliminated seven of its 24 intercollegiate varsity sports, including baseball. According to David O'Shea, president of New College of Florida, a small honors institution know for keeping tuition low by not offering any extracurricular sports and amenities, the runaway cost of a college education is a disruptor.
"I think what is going to stop being a major driver is student expectation...cost is outstripping the desire for...huge facilities and things like that," said O'Shea in an NPR story. He noted that New College invests in faculty and offers a 10:1 student ratio. "We don't have any varsity sports...only about 40% graduate with debt, and those who do have debt, the average debt is a little under $18,000," he added.
Colleges and universities have lost sight of their purpose. It's time for academia to redraw the map and put their money where their mission rests.