Reforming higher ed: unleash the power of the free market!

A few weeks ago, I was tagged by the American Federation of Teachers higher ed blog to answer two questions inspired by that foolish op-ed in the New York Times by Mark C. Taylor last month.  The AFT’s questions are:

  1. Do you believe the U.S. system of higher education is in need of change and, if so, why and to what degree?
  2. What are the top three things you would change in the long-run if you had the power to do that?

There are a pile of exams and final papers a-waiting my attention, so I am going to answer 1)  Fer Sure, and 2) let’s keep it simple, and just abolish the free farm teams for the NFL and the NBA that most large universities subsidizeI wrote about this a few months ago, when I heard news that a university radio station in my former hometown was being axed for budgetary reasons:

I understand that in these lean budgetary years, programs that are not “mission-critical” will get the ax.  My question is this:  why are college  sports teams ever seen as “mission-critical?”  The marquee sports–men’s football and men’s basketball–involve only a tiny handful of students who are unrepresentative of the student body on most campuses (since women are the majority of college students.)  Why not just drop out of the NCAA and turn them into club sports, as so many women’s teams and other men’s teams are? . . . . Why does higher ed agree to run a free double- and triple-A league for the NBA and the NFL?  MLB and the NHL have done just fine, thank you very much, without this kind of welfare giveaway.

WMUB was a valuable service in a community that didn’t have a daily newspaper.  It employed student interns who wanted to get experience in broadcast media.  (I occasionally tune in to the voice of one of those former interns from the 1990s reading the news out here on Wyoming Public Radio.)  While community members may attend a college game or two every season, they surely tuned into WMUB in much greater numbers.  On bad weather days, it’s where we all went to pray for news of a snow day.  There is clearly a much better argument that WMUB was mission-critical, if the mission of higher education is, you know, education instead of entertainment and craven servility to the NBA and the NFL. 

Some universities are making entire colleges, departments, and programs become self-funding these days with grant and tuition dollars, so why not the Athletic Department?  Universities are after all places of higher learning, not entertainment franchises.  Remember how it was done in junior high and high school?  Team members had to sell fruit, or frozen bread dough, or do other kinds of fund-raisers in order to purchase uniforms and some gas for the school buses to drive them around to local schools to compete.  Why do men’s teams at the university level get the star treatment at everyone else’s expense?  Now that the majority of college students in this country are women, who also outperform their male peers academically, there’s a serious gender equity question here, too–even if women students are equally rabid team fans, no women’s teams are as lavishly funded as men’s teams, and there’s no such thing as women’s football.

If (as the false claim goes) these teams actually make money for the university–let them!  Release them from enfeebling welfare dependency!  Let the spirit of free enterprise be unleashed!  Let the invisible hand reach into its fat wallet to buy tickets to the games!  With freedom for athletic teams and justice for those who don’t play or watch sports, as Murray Sperber argued in Beer and Circus, more students might actually see college as a place for learning and intellectual growth, rather than as a four-year party.

0 thoughts on “Reforming higher ed: unleash the power of the free market!

  1. I don’t think your solution would go far enough to have any real effect–say you leave everything to the “free market”: fund-raisers and administrators will just steer donors to the athletic programs (where they can enjoy good seats and fawning tailgates) as opposed to needier parts of the university. In a pure free market, athletic boosters are kings.


  2. bc–you raise a good point. Maybe you’re thinking within a private university model. Here at my large public uni, it would be revolutionary if the AD suddenly had no more claim on state monies (to pay those half-million plus coaches’ salaries) or on tuition dollars and student fees. If my uni spent all of its state money, tuition dollars, and grant money on educational programs and departments (like IT and the libraries) that support education rather than entertainment–well, let’s just say that academic departments and students interested in education would be the big winners.

    Athletic boosters can boost all the want–under my system, they have to do more than “boost” the AD budget. They have to figure out a way to pay the full freight.


  3. We don’t have any sports teams yet — just club teams in softball, baseball, volleyball — but gee, overall, what a difference. People might start being proud of the university they went to because it was, well, a university.

    And it would, on many state campuses, free up several million dollars for education. It wouldn’t fix everything we might have a few more ladder lines instead of adjunct hires…


  4. Fair enough–I suspected that your solution was coming from a different system. Where I went to grad school, it was also Division I and also a large public uni (at least, technically)–and it always struck me that donors were steered to lush targets where the rich got richer (football, B-school, law school) rather than more diffuse needs (arts and sciences). But on the other hand, I wasn’t privy to all the ins and outs of funding in that system, so I could be way off base. It’s definitely a sad state of affairs that the taxpayer has to foot the bill for games he/she will probably never attend (whereas, at least a college-educated alum might someday provide jobs, economic growth & development, and cultural enrichment for the entire state).


  5. Susan, your campus sounds verily like heaven. (Then again, I’m biased. I didn’t go to a big football school.)

    bc, I think you’re right that donors want to support things that will get their donations big play. The football team and the B-school will probably always be winners over the Creative Writing M.A. program and Ethnic Studies (just to name a few examples.) My scheme is an attempt to level the playing field and to preserve public and tuition dollars for mission-critical departments and programs.

    Universities have a responsibility to fund precisely the departments/programs on campus that don’t attract a lot of donations and that can’t possibly pay for themselves. (What would happen to things like the libraries if universities didn’t support them? It’s not like they make any money–they’re loaning books and databases for FREE to people, after all!)


  6. I heartily agree with your suggestion. But to clarify (and maybe push bc a little), donations do not qualify as being part of a “free market” approach. I assumed your proposal would take away the tax exempt status of donations to athletic departments, since they are for-profit enterprises. Let fans pay for the real cost of their teams and then let’s use the funds this frees up on…I don’t know, education?


  7. Tom: it’s possible for ADs to be self-funding non-profits. But if in the (unlikely!) event that they make money, then they could be for-profit entities. (In that case, universities should charge them licensing fees for the use of the University logo and name, etc.) I think tax law would have to be decided on a case-by-case basis–some ADs might apply for non-profit status, in which case they’d be required to plow any profits back into the organization. But if they’re for-profit, then no deductions. (“Donors” would in fact be “investors” in the latter case.)

    Here’s another angle I hadn’t considered: ADs would have to purchase the stadiums and arenas from universities, or figure out a long-term lease. That’s a lot of dough up front–those “boosters” better be feeling generous!


  8. It sounds like a great idea but I’m confused about what you think the role of the central administration should be.

    Right now, development offices go after rich guys and try to flatter them into donating by mentioning some specific program, building, initiative, whatever. Then comes the power struggle, where the central admin tries to make the gift as unrestricted as possible and the donor usually tries to keep it focused.

    Are you saying that the developmenteers in central admin should not be allowed to offer a prospective donor a lifetime seat at the 50-yard line or a right to rename the Toilet Colosseum? If so, I wholeheartedly agree with you, but I would have to admit that maybe the university would be forfeiting money.


  9. Coming to Canada from the United States, I was immediately struck by the diminution of university athletics compared to my Big Ten background. (Seriously, I wouldn’t believe anyone when they showed me the UofT stadium which was on a par with my high school’s football field.)

    The standard response to any such reforms as you suggest in the US is that universities raise lots of funds from athletics. If so, how the heck do the Ivy League universities survive? The same goes for others who have healthy donor profiles but don’t participate in the NCAA conferenences?

    I’d love to see more participatory sports at our universities where undergraduates could play, not just watch. One of my students made the cut for the university swim team in her senior year but then, when their budget was cut back, got booted off. That’s about the only situation where I’d be inclined to donate to support university sports, though — so that more people can enjoy varsity and club sports by doing, not by sitting on their butts in a mega-stadium or arena!


  10. The U of M Football team brought in over $57 million in revenues last year out of total revenues of $99 million. Women’s teams brought in a total of $677,000 in revenues.

    Of course, nobody but U of M and comparable teams have that kind of money coming in. But, just from that, a pay-to-play scheme seems like it would just ramp up the inequity, particularly the gender inequity. At least at U of M that football money gets spread around to help sports that don’t produce so much revenue. If those sports had to produce their own revenue to exist they wouldn’t exist because the football hoover is vacuuming up the money — as it is almost everywhere.

    Also, a pay-to-play scheme opens the door to even more corruption, graft, excesses, and athlete abuse. Some teams would probably find it very freeing to be rid of NCAA restrictions on recruiting, paying players, and booster slush funds. I bet Chris Webber, for example, would much rather have been on the equivalent of an NBA farm team than being hauled into federal court for his questionable financial dealings with a corrupt booster during his college career.

    I’m not defending the big football model which really only works for places like U of M. Everyplace else it’s a enormous money-suck. I’m just adding info because this questions fascinates me. Along with the fact that Universities, to meet Title IX tests, are adding tons of women crew teams because a) they’re cheap and b) you can, apparently, add limitless numbers of women to offset the 100+ football players.

    Money and athlete statistics are found here:


  11. Emma–thanks for the link. That’s some very handy data to mine.

    I looked up the expenses to revenues for Baa Ram U. in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available.

    Total men’s team expenses: $11,452,158.00
    Total men’s team revenues: $4,685,026

    When the College of Liberal Arts is subsidized to the tune of 59 cents on the dollar (that is, nearly 60% more than it takes in with tuition money), then we can talk about having an NFL and NBA free farm team again.

    (But that ain’t gonna happen!)


  12. LadyProf–what I envision isn’t zeroing out the budgets for all sports. I’d vote to have student fees go to support sports at the club team level–loan them buses to drive to local games and matches, etc. I’d also support the university maintaining a gym and training fields for practice and for hosting games. I’m very pro-athletics as (as Janice suggests) something to participate in rather than to sit around and get drunk while watching.

    But, teams need to show team spirit by having bake sales, selling fruit, and frozen bread dough! Where’s the fun in just expecting the university to furnish absolutely everything for your team? Come on–those kids in the drama department have to volunteer to build the sets for their plays and to make their costumes–and that’s something that they’re doing for academic credit. So team members can and should expect to pony up to suppor their team. (Besides, joining a gym after graduation will be a lot more expensive than club sports in college.)


  13. I’d be a lot more in favor of college sports if they were less silly. I spend far too much time listening to my fellow students insult Clemson University, USC’s huge rival and enemy sports team blah blah blah. (The engineering department recently hired a new undergrad lab manager, and every time he’s mentioned, literally every time so far, the sentence, “He’s a Clemson grad, but we’ll forgive him for that,” is added. HAHA TEH FUNNY.) It’s artificial, pointless, goofy, a waste of time, and makes me want to paint myself in tiger stripes just to piss off other people on campus. (And this is at USC, a school which unusually manages to make a profitable income from its sports program — apparently by inspiring rabid devotion.)

    Re bake sales — Nice point. But why would sports teams put in effort to make money when there’s a whole department dedicated to their comfort and success? Compare the number of academic or student groups that run bake sales, cookouts, pizza sales, or movie nights to raise money; those students are learning organization, salesmanship, and advertising skills through such activities, useful (though not critical) life lessons.


  14. Total men’s team expenses: $11,452,158.00
    Total men’s team revenues: $4,685,026

    Exactly!! Now, look up how much it costs to fund one football player (at U of M nearly $35,000) and how much it costs to fund a single women’s crew member ($4,500). There are 110 football players and 99 women’s crew members at U of M.

    Clearly, it’s through adding women to crew that U of M achieves its nearly 50/50 gender ratio and its spending imbalance of 50 cents on the dollar for women’s teams as compared to men’s teams. Football expenses alone ($16.7 million) are more than the expenses for ALL the women’s sports ($14.8 million) or the expenses for all the other men’s sports ($14 million).

    Is that amazing? You really have to dig into the numbers to see the amazing gender imbalance in dollars spent. Women’s sports are done on the cheap in every aspect as compared to men’s. Even spending across the same sport is unequal: U of M spends twice as much on its men’s b-ball team than on its women’s team. But the only gender parity anybody ever looks at is in numbers of athletes.


  15. Right on, Emma. The numbers at Baa Ram U. were just as depressing.

    And you know that some people will argue that zeroing out the free farm teams will only further alienate teh menz and ZOMG what about teh menz!

    (No one ever asks why teh boyz and teh menz don’t just, you know, study and do their homework in high school and college. No–apparently, the men deserve to have subsidized entertainment to top off their underachievement! I guess that’s the rationale that was at work when the University of Maryland decided to show porn for entertainment for free earlier this spring…)


  16. I would love to see frozen bread dough sales sweep the nation/s campuses. For a perspective, about a quarter century old, on how huge state university <> sports athletic programs often resonate far more among segments of the state populations that never have anything to do with the university otherwise, but sometimes quite rich and powerful people, see the documentary <>.

    Although, now that you mention it, <> would be a pretty damn amusing alternative title.


  17. It’s also worth noting the disparity in coaching salaries between women’s and men’s teams. The numbers at my institution:

    Average Annual Institutional Salary per FTE
    men’s teams: $132,391
    women’s teams: $78,761

    The difference is much smaller for assistant coaches. In any case, you can tell by those numbers that we’re not in a premier division so I checked another university down the road:

    Average Annual Institutional Salary per FTE
    men’s teams: $274,931
    women’s teams: $107,796

    and here, this relationship remains for assistant coaches.


  18. And compare truffula’s coaching salaries with that of TT profs.

    And let’s not mention how much adjuncts get paid at most school. [Just lob off the first digit.]


  19. Indyanna – I remember ‘Men of LSU’ from many years ago. It was a fascinating portrait of obsession – the abject identification with a school by local fans who never attended a class there. LSU is a singular case of AD excess amid academic desperation in a state facing a huge budget crisis. I have no idea where to look, but would love to find a copy of that documentary. Any suggestions?


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s