Are institutional investments in athletics driving negative perceptions of higher ed?
- A recent analysis by KDM engineering is targeting the lopsidedness of higher ed's investment in athletics versus academics; specifically, the analysis looks at how much money is put into scholarships for sports ($2.9 billion) versus STEM fields ($1.6 billion), despite the fact that there are more STEM jobs in the U.S. economy (8.6 million) than sports jobs (11,800). The analysis breaks down to $180 investment per STEM worker, versus $245,763 per professional athlete.
- Though professional athletes out-earn professional scientists, the return on public investment favors a greater investment in STEM professionals: the average career length of a STEM worker is 40-45 years while a pro athlete’s career typically only lasts three to five years.
- Many of the schools with the top collegiate sports programs are also the top research institutions in their states, and faculty members have long expressed discontent with the uneven investments placed on the two, seemingly complementary, enterprises.
University of Alabama football made the university $103.9 million in revenue in 2016 and netted a $47 million profit — a 3.6% increase from the previous year. And the 2017 national champions will likely see those numbers increase when this season's numbers are released. And though researchers have been complaining for years about the lopsidedness of institutional priorities, whether that's experienced through student-athletes seeming to get a pass on class or being favored in campus investments, it's hard to argue the ROI from athletics for the institutions competing at the highest level is greater than the ROI from STEM investment.
However, a majority of institutions actually run in the red trying to keep up with the top-earning institutions. In fact, in most places, athletics are heavily supplemented by general budgets, which actually takes away from the available academic supports. And with growing scrutiny from state houses from Iowa to South Carolina, Missouri and Florida over how public institutions are spending state appropriations — specifically, whether that money is actually being used to advance academic progress or support administrative bloat — it will be increasingly difficult to sell the idea of an investment in higher education as a public good, rather than one which will benefit only a handful of individuals. It was this idea which drove Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell to not just eliminate the school's football program, but turn the football field into a community farm staffed by students.
Phillip Trostel, a professor at the University of Maine, said during December's Higher Education Government Relations Conference in San Diego that there's a growing sense of public disdain for paying for higher ed on the notion that a college degree helps individuals earn more over their lifetimes. Similarly, there is a growing disdain among public officials over the salaries and administrative spending of leaders in higher education, which has led legislators to not only decide not to allocate more funds to higher ed in many states, but to find ways to restrict the spending of funds already allocated.
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