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Spiraling student fees help colleges chase athletic glory, critics say

Colleges are willing to spend millions of dollars in pursuit of athletic glory out of a mistaken belief that success in the NCAA’s annual March Madness basketball tournament will boost the school’s profile, draw all kinds of new students to their campuses and enhance fundraising, said B. David Ridpath, associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University.

In reality, most colleges and universities simply end up spending more money, and passing those costs onto students, Ridpath said.

Division I schools like Canisius College that play outside the so-called “power five” conferences are chasing fool’s gold, he said. The schools in the power conferences spend tens of millions of dollars more on their teams, thanks to their huge television deals that bring them more revenue.

“Regardless of what Canisius does, Canisius is not going to win the NCAA championship,” Ridpath said.

Meanwhile, fees for athletics programs at many schools grow at a faster clip than tuition, Ridpath said.

[Related: Area colleges boost spending on sports teams to lure students]

In 2015, The Drake Group, a national organization of faculty and others that works to defend academic integrity in collegiate sports, called for a cap on the amount of fees institutions can charge students for their intercollegiate athletics programs.

“Student fees are the single largest revenue source for almost every institution,” said Ridpath, who with Andrew S. Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College, and other writers helped author The Drake Group position statement. “It’s a regressive tax that many students are not aware of.”

Tanya Loughead, associate professor of philosophy at Canisius, shares that concern. But she also suggested that the college’s focus on sports was symptomatic of bigger problems in academe. In her 2015 book, “Critical University: Moving Higher Education,” Loughead critiqued the growing emphasis on skill building over critical thinking in higher education. Loughead’s research for the book unearthed a “nationwide phenomenon” of colleges spending less on instruction and academics, particularly by relying heavily on poorly paid adjuncts, rather than tenure-track professors, to teach the bulk of courses on campuses. Canisius hasn’t escaped the trend, Loughead said.

[Related: Leaving Division I college sports rejected at Canisius, St. Bonaventure]

She said Canisius spends less on tenure-track faculty than it did five years ago.

“Our athletics spending has gone up 20 percent, but our investment in education and teaching has gone down during that time,” Loughead said.

Loughead wonders why intercollegiate athletics in America is such a sacred cow, especially when so many fine colleges around the globe have never fielded sports teams. Europeans, for example, “think it’s totally bizarre” that universities in the U.S. sponsor sports. And within the context of escalating college costs, she added, “I don’t know why we can’t talk about” scaling back college sports.


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