Money in college sport is complicated, many argue. It’s confusing because of the variety of sports and college types, and the intricate revenue streams that make it all work (sort of) together.

But a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education argues that in a general sense this is how it works.

In the past five years, public universities pumped more than $10.3 billion in mandatory student fees and other subsidies into their sports programs, according to an examination by The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Huffington Post. The review included an inflation-adjusted analysis of financial reports provided to the NCAA by 201 public universities competing in Division I, information that was obtained through public-records requests.

The average athletic subsidy that these colleges and their students have paid to their athletic departments increased 16 percent during that time. Student fees, which accounted for nearly half of all subsidies, increased by 10 percent.

It would, perhaps, make sense if American colleges funded their sports programs by ticket sales. Popularity would determine profit. Within this schools could even move revenue around in the interest of Title IX and promoting new sports. They could take out loans to build new stadiums.

But it doesn’t really work that way at all. When colleges need money they often just increase the student fee, which students have to pay, and for which they don’t really get financial aid.


In fact, according to the article, student fee subsidy rates are highest at schools with low ticket sales, meaning that “students who have the least interest in their college’s sports teams are often required to pay the most to support them.” Students and people in general. It turns out you are required to pay more to support sports programs if no one cares about those programs, which is a very strange and inequitable distribution of academic resources.

But here’s the most disturbing part of all this: it’s poor kids who have to do this:

Many colleges that heavily subsidize their athletic departments also serve poorer populations than colleges that can depend more on outside revenue for sports. The 50 institutions with the highest athletic subsidies averaged 44 percent more Pell Grant recipients than the 50 institutions with the lowest subsidies during 2012-13, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

A lot of people really enjoy college sports. And there is (some) evidence to indicate that a high quality sports program can be good for both alumni donations and student admissions.

But what’s going on here is that schools with the most poor students are soaking these students (who can ill afford it) with massive student fees in order to pay for sports programs these students don’t want, and which have the fewest actual outside fans.

This is not that complicated. And this is morally wrong.

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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