Who is a bigger drain?

While lots of attention is heaped on college athletics as a sink of money, what of other parts of universities? It may surprise many outside of universities that some parts of the university are subsidized by other parts.

Take science, like physics and chemistry and, yes, geology.  Teaching these subjects for majors usually requires more money than these students pay in tuition (labs are expensive, and and lab-based education will typically have low student to faculty ratios); in contrast, English Lit majors pay far more than their degree costs to teach.  Psychology is usually quite the income generator on a big campus. (So every science nerd at a big university owes thanks to those liberal arts kids). So why pick on athletics?  Maybe these pointy-headed scientists should pay their own way, too.

There are a few things in favor of these science and engineering departments that help balance the scales.  One is that the graduates of those science and engineering departments make more money as alumni, which makes them more likely to donate back to the university (GG has seen recent bachelor’s graduates get salaries exceeding his own).  Another is that these programs tend to also have active research programs which bring in money to, among other things, support graduate students, paying their tuition.  A third is that these departments usually are teaching service courses to the rest of the university, providing those literature and psychology majors with some breadth to their education. Fourth, having active researchers can lift the university’s prestige (which helps recruit strong faculty). Finally, fifth, a modern university lacking a science and engineering component would be looked upon as deficient.  It is part of the package. 

How about athletics?  They certainly have their share of successful alumni. And they bring in big bucks from TV contracts and the like which helps cover student scholarships. At many Division I schools, the coaches and staff only teach the intercollegiate teams, so they are not contributing to the education of anybody else. Successful athletic programs can bring attention to a school (though increased applications usually turn out to be at the weak end of the applicant pool). And many might regard a major university without a football or basketball program to be deficient.

Put this way, they don’t seem that different, especially if you make the coaching staff teach survey courses (GG sees it now: “Inspirational leadership I”).

Of course there is a difference of scale.  Whole colleges within universities have smaller budgets than many Division I athletic departments.  And while academic scandals occur from time to time (brrrumpfWardChurchillHackhack), athletic department scandals seem to be both quite frequent and exceptionally public, so there is actually a greater downside to maintaining an athletic program than a far greater number of academic programs.  CU Boulder spends $20M a year on coaches and staff for the 8 intercollegiate sports with perhaps 300 students (and another $24M on ‘other’); Geological Sciences spends perhaps $3M a year on faculty training some 200 undergraduate students and about 100 graduate students (and many of undergraduates enter as juniors, unlike most competitive sports, so perhaps 300-400 current undergraduates will receive a Geological Sciences degree); the cost of training an athlete might well be the highest cost per student of any program on campus (and at CU, their degree is something else: you cannot major in “football” or even “physical education”).  If we take the average undergraduate tuition to be $20,000/year (splitting the difference of in- and out of state) and graduate tuition (covered by grants, usually) at $10,000/year, Geological Science students contributed about $7M towards that $3M being paid the faculty. Athletic scholarships were $8.8M, which doesn’t come close to the cost of the coaches, let alone whatever the cost of students’ degrees in other subjects costs.

So why pick on athletics? Because in terms of making the biggest impact on the most students in terms of education (and not entertainment), per dollar, athletics looks like a real loser. 

Now to be perfectly clear, GG has nothing against student-athletes, most of whom are truly working hard for an education and who have tremendous demands made on their time with little schedule flexibility by coaches. 

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