Any American that has given at least one cursory glance at a newspaper in the last few years will know that Americans are fed up of being “nickle and dimed.” Right or wrong, many citizens are infuriated about tax dollars going to support healthcare reform, stimulus programs like Cash for Clunkers, and bailouts for failed corporations. Anyone who has purchased a new car knows how frustrating it can be to buy a car off the lot that come with rip-off accessories like a $1,000 wax and Scotchgard coating that could easily be done for less than $100. Airlines are starting to charge for travel necessities like carrying a bag and use of the lavatory. One of my favorite blogs, The Consumerist, just completed a tournament with 64 companies, just like the NCAA Basketball Tournament, where readers vote to determine who wins the Worst Company in America award. Comcast and Ticketmaster contested the championship round for this year’s Worst Company in America award. In the end, Comcast won the undesired victory. I am sure one of the major reasons why those companies were determined to be the two worst companies in America is because they charge people for unwanted services while overcharging people for wanted services for no real good reason other than because the companies can do so.
It is inconceivable that any regular citizen would wear a t-shirt or sweatshirt with the logo of their local car dealer, cable company, cell phone provider, bank, or the IRS because they love those organizations. It would seem that nobody gets warm and fuzzy feelings about companies that rip us off. Oddly enough, there is one industry that has managed to maintain warm and fuzzy status while ripping off the public. The culprit? Higher education.
Yes, there have been protests about tuition hikes. The University of California tuition hike last year led to protests that have not been seen in many decades. That aside, the public continues to bleed the colors of their favorite universities even if the only reason why they are bleeding is because they have been stabbed in the back by the universities.
Tuition and fees continue to rise while the quality of undergraduate education decreases. Instead of treating potential students as intellects in the making, many schools view undergraduates as a source of revenue. Many large public universities teach general education courses in rooms so big that the closest some students get to the professor is an image on a television monitor installed in the back of the room. Adjunct faculty are replacing faculty in the classroom. The adjunct faculty may be more than qualified to teach, but their untenured status opens them up to pressure to keep students within the system. In order words, there is pressure to make sure that everyone is happy with their grade. Also, it is hard for the students to build relationships with here today, gone tomorrow faculty. I am ashamed to admit it, but my own alma mater, the University of Houston, made headlines last month when it was revealed that a professor there is outsourcing her grading to a company in Asia. In the past, graduate students would help with grading in exchange for paltry (though not as paltry as what the third world is willing to charge) pay, but universities now know that they can get by without supporting their graduate students because many undergraduate degrees are so worthless that students are forced to get a graduate degree to get any use from their undergraduate degree. Even car dealers, cable companies, and banks would be jealous of the level of chicanery implemented by institutions of higher education.
One specific area where students get more for less is college athletics. College athletics is well outside the mission of higher education, but there are legitimate arguments for athletics. Many athletes are legitimately good students. They come to the universities academically focused and prepared. It makes sense for colleges to recruit these well-rounded students. The easiest way to recruit these students is to subsidize their ability to compete in the sports they love.
Unfortunately, that is not why athletics exist at a large number of institutions. Schools participating in big-time college athletics will recruit revenue sport athletes with almost no consideration about their academic preparation, commitment, or future. Outstanding students that are good athletes will be passed over for great athletes of any academic quality. Rules have been implemented to try to encourage schools to recruit academically focused athletes, but schools laugh at these rules. The schools stay compliant with the rules by enrolling their not so pedantic student-athletes in academic programs that are even more fruitless than the usual academic programs on campus.
It seems that the public recognizes that many revenue sport athletes at big-time and wanna be big-time athletic schools are essentially fake students, but the public, even those who are not sports fans, justify this because they think that big-time athletics raises money for the school. It seems that the public is willing to trade a little dishonesty if it has the potential to do things like lower tuition or increase quality. The problem is that big-time athletics loses money at almost every school. The desire to win is so great that schools not only reinvest all the money they get from the revenue sports back into the revenue sports, but they take money from anywhere they can to put into the revenue sports. Yes, that includes tuition and fees through the use of mandatory athletics fees. The student fees are often significant. For example, Old Dominion University recently started a Division I FCS (I-AA) football program. In order to pay for it, the university now levies a $450 per year athletic fee that the students must pay. Old Dominion students may love their football program, but I am sure the students that spend four years at Old Dominion would rather have $1,800 in their wallets. Even schools in the power conferences with mega television deals often levy student fees in order to feed the football and men’s basketball monster. Money that goes to the athletics department from the general university fund can also be sourced directly from the students and taxpayers. Some may feel that athletics helps fundraising, but research indicates that athletics only fundraises for athletics. Also, the research shows that athletics is not such a great advertising tool either.
Ultimately, schools sponsor big-time athletics programs solely because big-time athletics keeps college administrators from getting fired. There are some people with enough political clout who love big-time college football and men’s basketball so much that they would have a college president fired or a board member removed if they were perceived to be anti-football or anti-basketball. The end result of this administrative cowardliness is that the public ends up paying for the strange and unhealthy addiction to football and basketball that afflicts a relatively few amount of people.
Ticketmaster, the second place finisher in The Consumerist’s 2010 Worst Company in America tournament, is disdained for their seemingly useless “convenience” fees. Well, the cost of big-time college athletics is nothing more than a convenience fee for college administrators. The problem is that the convenience fees for big-time college athletics are a lot bigger for higher education consumers than convenience fees are for Ticketmaster consumers.
For all their faults, universities do have many great redeeming qualities. It is those redeeming qualities that have kept higher education in good favor with the public for many decades. However, sentiment will turn as more people discover that many schools are increasingly charging more money for less quality. Big-time college athletics should be one of the first reforms since it is nothing more than a useless black hole. If that happens, colleges will have two legitimate options. First, they could stop sponsoring sports. That would turn sports sanctioning over to sporting federations. Hopefully the sporting federations will put their sport above cowardice. The other option is that schools only sponsor sports that benefit the academic life of the campus. Believe it or not, college football and basketball will not vanquish if this happens because there are many good football and basketball players that are also great students. On top of that, future college football and basketball hopefuls will need to become more focused on their academics under this paradigm. Other sports that are constantly being marginalized because they take resources away from football and men’s basketball could benefit from this as well. Sports that have a good history of producing academically focused athletes who actually support the mission of a university, like water polo, could play a pivotal role in an education renaissance.
Ashlen Dube operates the Other Side Sports website. Other Side Sports is dedicated to studying the interaction of sports and education. Visitors of all experience levels are encouraged to contribute their opinions on the new Other Side Sports forum.