From USA Today comes an interesting story about the price tag for college sports:

At Cincinnati, competing in the Big East means going to the Sugar Bowl to play Florida. It means a good shot at a place in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. And there’s having your name known nationally.

But membership has a price. Cincinnati now depends on university subsidies for one-third of its athletic revenue — nearly double the amount it received in 2004-05. And it has accumulated $24 million in athletic operating debt, even with the subsidies.

It’s gotten so bad that, according to the article, the University of Cincinnati “convened a task force, whose draft report last week recommended that the university raise tuition and fees and use more general fund money to support high-profile athletics and erase the debt.” That’s right; in a time of major financial strain across academia Cincinnati is considering increasing tuition for everyone to pay for its athletic program.

All of this makes one wonder: Are big sports worth it?

Cincinnati student government President Tim Lolli explained that he thinks the school’s athletic program is worth it because “Student involvement is up on campus. There’s a better feeling on campus, more pride for the university. It’s something that connects students to the university other than going to class.”

If all this sounds vague and unconvincing, it actually hints at the reason behind college sports. The point of funding a large athletic program can be traced to the Flutie Effect. In 1984 Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie’s successful Hail Mary pass resulted in his school’s dramatic win over the University of Miami. In the next admissions cycle, the number and quality of applicants to BC improved spectacularly. Applications to the school increased by 16 percent in 1984 and then by 12 percent in 1985.

The idea is that if a school has good sports teams, this will eventually translate into more applications and a better university. Sports promote exposure. Exposure translates to applications.

It’s little unclear, despite the Cincinnati example, if anyone’s been able to replicate the Flutie effect, as in actually improve the academic quality of a school as a result of athletic spending. Even the role of the Flutie game on BC admissions is debatable.

In recent years as Cincinnati sports have gotten big, the school’s reputation has grown too. In 2009 the school experienced record enrollments. But even Lolli wonders if students will begin to question the school’s priorities: “It’s difficult finding money for tuition. I have to pay for the entire athletic program, too?”

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer