The high cost of athletic departments, administrative bloat, and the higher education bubble

December 7th, 2010

Gregg Easterbrook (who is Judge Frank Easterbrook’s bro) has a fantastic Tuesday Morning Quarterback this week, discussing the high cost of athletic departments. These programs are bloated, over-funded, and pilfer money that should be going towards education. That higher education bubble keeps getting bigger and bigger. Though I wonder what will go first when the bubble bursts–academics or the pigskin.

Recently the NCAA reported that only 14 Division I-A programs clear a profit, while no college or university in the United States has an athletic department that is financially self-sustaining. Nobody in Division I — not Alabama, not Auburn, not Oklahoma, nobody — has an athletic department that pays its own way.

The median big-university subsidy from general funds to sports is $10 million per school, the NCAA found. Many major college athletic programs claim to be self-sustaining, since this is what everyone wants to hear, but actually are not. For example, the University of Oregon claims its athletic department is self-sustaining. Yet the school’s general fund gives the athletic department nearly $1 million per year, Rachel Bachman of The Portland Oregonian reports. Increasingly, college students who don’t play sports are charged to support those who do.USA Today reports that in the 2008-09 school year, colleges charged their students $795 million to support athletics. Often this wasn’t revealed, with the costs buried in tuition fees that students, and their parents, thought were solely to support academics.

So Schools secretly divert money from tuition to pay for sports. Interesting. What’s the cause? Easterbrook lays part of the blame on high coach salaries. But beyond the cost of coach salaries, Easterbrook targets bloated administrative costs.

Beyond too-high coaches’ pay and perks there is another, less noticed reason almost all colleges lose money on sports — featherbedding in the athletic department.

In an era when budget stress is causing classes to be cut and core academic missions to be scaled back, many collegiate athletic departments are the most overstaffed organizations this side of a Monty Python sketch. Because sports is viewed as sacrosanct, the athletic department can get away with having far more people than needed — then sending the bill to average students and to taxpayers.

Easterbrook notes that extent of this bloat at Ohio State (For purposes of full disclosure, I am a Penn State Fan, and express my enmity towards the Buckeyes):

Ohio State lists 458 people in its athletic department. Included are the athletic director (who’s also a vice president of the university), four people with the title senior associate athletic director, 12 associate athletic directors, an associate vice president, a “senior associate legal counsel for athletics” and plus a nine-person NCAA compliance office. NCAA rules are complex, to be sure, but does Ohio State really needs nine people who do nothing but push NCAA paperwork? The Ohio State NCAA compliance staff is lean and mean compared to the football staff, which includes 13 football coaches, a director of football operations, three associate directors of football operations, a “director of football performance” and three football-only trainers.

How do these numbers compare to academic departments at the school? There are 192 faculty members in Ohio State’s English department, with a support staff of about 50. Thus the Ohio State athletic department has roughly twice as many people as the Ohio State English department. Sports receive more staffing than English though nearly all Ohio State students at some juncture take a course through the English department, while few participate in NCAA athletics. And sports receive more staffing than English, though there is a widespread feeling that many Americans are inadequately educated in subjects such as English, while not one single person in the entire United States believes there isn’t enough emphasis on sports.

Football may be big at Ohio Sate, but it contributes significantly more resources towards football that towards English!

All those coaches and mysterious “associate directors of football operations” mean that in football, Ohio State has a 1-to-5 ratio of staff to students: while in English, the staff-to-student ratio is 1-to-280. Divide the latter by the former. In staffing terms, Ohio State treats football as 56 times more important than it does English.

Maybe it is just bad at Ohio State, a big football school? Nope. It’s just as bad at Cal:

Cal has a 27-person staff for football coaching and administration, overseeing a roster of 110 players. That’s a 1-to-4 ratio of staff to students. The school’s English department has 71 non-emeritus personnel, plus about 50 support staff, serving a student body of 35,843. That’s a 1-to-296 ratio of staff to students. Judged by staff, Cal devotes even more resources to football, versus English, than does Ohio State. In staffing terms, Cal treats football as 74 times more important than English.

Todd Zywiki blogged some time ago about the Administrative Bloat at Universities. It seems to be even more egregious in athletic departments. All of this profligacy seems to feed into Glenn Reynold’s now-ubiquitous Higher Education Bubble.