A guest post by Alexander Heffner

Today many private universities are tuition-free for low-income students ; public universities, on the other hand, have been forced to turn backward, raising fees and reducing student aid in the wake of the great recession.

Even after a turbulent economic roller-coaster prompting pay-cuts and the termination of hundreds of programs and staff, elite institutions of higher education still boast large donations and are investing increasingly in student aid.

But with statehouses in fiscal disorder and the possibility of continued shaky economic ground ahead, public universities have seen dismal cuts that are shortchanging students’ education.

If approved by the state’s general assembly, Missouri will be imposing a 7 percent cut in higher education. In Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer is spearheading efforts to ax state university budgets by 20 percent in the next two fiscal years. In California proposed cuts to higher education are inundating classrooms with anxiety. University officials say that such slashes will result in increased tuition, faculty lay-offs, reduced course offerings, more crowded classes, and dirty campuses.

That’s not all of the bad news. In Texas, as reported by the Dallas Morning News, the consequence of new cuts will mean reducing financial aid for over 60,000 students. The Atlanta Journal Constitution anticipates “more tuition increases in the coming months” and diminished financial aid offers for Georgia students. Utah’s Salt Lake Tribune chronicled in January “yet another cut in state appropriations [for education] of 7 percent,” forcing schools to contemplate limited enrollment.

The picture is similar in Nevada where legislators are expected to approve a plan to cut the state’s higher education budget by 20 percent in the coming two years. The Louisiana higher education system faces a budget deficit of 32 percent in state funding, and LLouisiana State University President John Lombardi has said that “significant increases” in tuition are on the horizon.

Yet despite the looming cuts, as the Wall Street Journal and USA Today have reported, public universities in these states continue to invest record sums into athletic departments fueling a disproportionate gulf between academic departments. According to the Journal article by Emmeline Zhao:

As colleges across the country spend… a median $84,446 per athlete in 2008, up almost 38 percent from 2005 — academic spending hasn’t changed proportionally — a median $13,349 per student, up about 20 percent over the same period, according to a report released by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

“There is no doubt that it is disconcerting to see significant growth in athletic spending while we are cutting academic programs, said Eric Barron, president of Florida State University in an interview.

In legislatures around the country, the nuts and bolts of education have become pork. In many states, funds for state-of-the-art athletic stadiums and multi-million dollar coaches provide the incentive for schools to fund new professorships or other academic-related expenditures. Successful football or basketball programs can be driver of increased scholastic investments.

Barron noted that if he removed or reduced funding for the athletic program he could lose financial support for academics. “I may lose simply because athletic events are the biggest draw to bring alumni back to campus, and alumni philanthropy is becoming a major, and desperately needed source of funds for universities.”

University officials who spoke under anonymity contend that they had to make a deal with the devil—that is, the athletic department as a whole—in order to guarantee continued funds for professors and financial aid. The result is multi-million-dollar paydays for varsity coaches and their assistants.

The annual salaries for public university basketball coaches include Florida’s Billy Donovan ($3.3 million), Kansas’s Bill Self ($3 million), Ohio State’s Thad Matta ($2.5 million), Louisville’s Rick Pitino ($2.25 million), Texas’s Rick Barnes ($2 million), and UCLA’s Ben Howland ($2 million).

When I asked about their excessive pay, University of Florida President Bernard Machen suggested they reflected the nation’s overall priorities. “Why are engineers paid more than first grade teachers?” he questioned.

Who could blame state legislatures for making severe “austerity cuts” when schools are invested in the public relations of their athletic programs more than the well-being and productiveness of their core academic departments or their capacity to provide financial aid to eligible students? But then the states themselves approve of the disproportionate non-academic spending – not demanding that schools first adequately serve their primary function to enrich young people with knowledge.

It’s a matter of priorities.

Of course, it’s not just our public universities that reflect some pretty dubious priorities. For years voters in districts from Kansas to New Jersey have voted down proposed tax hikes at the expense of the resources of their public schools. But as people’s pocketbooks and mortgages cry for less tax, despite the resulting decline and decreased quality of municipal services, most Americans are not protesting in the streets about the exorbitant salaries of state-employed celebrity coaches.

In their defense, public universities argue that their athletic programs are self-supporting, revenue-generating, and not funded by state moneys or student fees. In many instances, this appears to be true. (One big exception is UCLA, where tuition partly pays for the athletic program.)

In response to my queries over the last month, a few universities claimed that their athletic gains were dispersed throughout the school’s programs. When pressed, however, university chancellors and spokespeople could not vouch for how the athletic funds contributed to academic innovation across departmental lines. The athletic revenue had merely funded scholarships for student athletes (not the rest of the students).

Even if sports bring fans incomparable joy, is it worth the ever widening financial inequality between varsity head coaches and their academic counterparts? In this dire economic climate, there is little justification for varsity coaches’ salaries rivaling those of university presidents. Averaging roughly twenty big state schools, the ratio of salaries (university football head coach to president to tenured professor) is $2.5 million to $450,000 to $90,000. The mean state budget shortfall in these states in the most fiscal year is $4.5 billion.

The dominance of sports is particularly intense in Texas, which brought America Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights and its portrayal of athletic madness starting at the high school level. One Texas reporter covering the Super Bowl beat this year told me that public universities have to invest in football above all else because it is the only way to bring home the bacon in the classroom.

“You can’t compare what Nick Saban makes coaching the University of Alabama football team to what a published economist makes at the school. Saban generates revenue; the economist doesn’t.” The reporter argued we need a “new spin on this age-old issue.” Perhaps that novel angle is a willingness to believe that university mathematicians can generate revenue and fuel economic advances for the school if they are funded adequately.

When I asked why coaches are paid infinitely more than professors to Kristine Calogne, a vice chancellor for communications at LSU, she replied, “Salaries are driven by the market.” But ideas should drive what the market and salaries mean to an institution of higher education.

“It costs a certain amount to secure a great professor or chancellor or president, and it costs a certain amount to obtain a great coach. Those amounts are driven by what other universities and even professional teams across the nation are paying.” She implied that LSU athletics’ appearances prime-time television is the “best possible exposure” for the university to a national and international audience of prospective students.

Among schools whose athletic programs garner no government subsidy, many college officials claim questions of priority don’t apply to them. “The university may not fit into the premise suggested by the questions you have submitted. Athletics is a fully self-supporting enterprise and covers all of its costs. It gets no subsidy from the university,” said Don Hale, vice president of public affairs at the University of Texas.

But these universities seem unable to market schools around academic accomplishments that can strengthen their hometown communities and the nation’s livelihood. For public universities, ESPN is more profitable exposure than the New York Times.

FSU’s Gibbons argues that the media climate is responsible in which the public is sending the wrong “signals about priorities.” In possible the gutsiest moment of candor among my exchanges with any presidents, Gibbons continued:

“Despite many interesting stories, stories on athletics in the media overwhelmingly get more attention than stories about academics. I believe that on-line media, for which hit rates can be recorded, has made this even more evident to the media and advertisers. So, the media respond by focusing on athletic events because they want advertising dollars. The TV contracts for the major conferences also demonstrate a very high level of competitiveness to pay for athletics.”

Yet many schools in cut-wounded country, like the University of Arizona, don’t seem uncomfortable with the predominance of sports. President Robert Shelton said appropriately prioritized its programs in the wake of significant budget cuts and the continued threat of future ones.

Does the university have too much emphasis on its sports culture? “The emphasis at the UA is on a comprehensive educational experience for our students,” Shelton answered.

Public universities could take a cue from President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union in which the president insisted that America must invest in “big ideas” in order to compete with China and a host of other budding super-powers. Embracing the path to innovation, public universities must evaluate where financial need is most pressing.

It’s time for us to look in the mirror, and for us to no longer confuse a national pastime with securing a national livelihood. As university presidents said in a myriad of interviews, sports are part of the college experience. But they don’t justify many times the financial resources and attention of academic departments, especially when so many public universities, in every tier, are struggling to provide first-rate educations.

The recently published book, Academically Adrift, revealed that 45 percent of the nation’s undergraduates “learn very little in their first two years of college.” Moreover, according to the study, college does not improve students’ critical thinking or writing. We just might be drifting into oblivion because cable’s athletes of the week have taken precedence over colleges’ duty to raise lifelong intellectuals. [Image via]

Heffner is a junior at Harvard College.

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Daniel Luzer

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