RICHMOND, Va. — Major bowl games, Final Four basketball appearances and marquee games played in huge stadiums with millions more watching on TV don’t guarantee that even top-shelf college athletics organizations can cover all their costs, resulting in mandatory annual student activity fees covering the shortfalls, according to a new Virginia legislative study.
On average, 12 percent of the total student tuition and fee payments was allocated to intercollegiate athletics in the school year that ended a few months ago, according to a report presented Monday by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the General Assembly’s watchdog agency. Those fees ranged from less than $300 per year to more than $2,000.
Not even the big-league athletics programs of Virginia Tech and Virginia can meet their expenses without supplemental funding from student activity fees, according to the study of non-academic services at four-year Virginia public schools.
Gov. Bob McDonnell and the legislature enacted initiatives last winter to make higher education more accessible and affordable, and the state’s major-party gubernatorial nominees, Democrat Terry R. McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, are both touting their own proposals to cut the costs of a four-year degree.
Among JLARC’s findings were that only three of the 14 state-supported Virginia four-year colleges that belong to the nation’s largest college sports sanctioning organization — the National Collegiate Athletic Association — cover more than half their costs. They are the athletic departments at Tech, UVa and Virginia Military Institute.
Virginia Tech and UVa, members of the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference, came closest to self-sufficiency, covering 89 and 84 percent of their costs in the 2011-12 school year, respectively, and relying on student fees for the rest. At VMI, athletics revenue covered 61 percent of its costs.
The trend is national, said Walt Smiley, who led the JLARC study project. Of the 226 public universities that participated at the NCAA’s highest level, Division I, in the 2010-2011 academic year, only seven — Louisiana State University, the University of Nebraska, Ohio State University, the University of Oklahoma, Penn State University, Purdue University and the University of Texas — generated enough revenue from sports to cover their costs. All are members of premier college athletic conferences.
Football and basketball are considered “revenue sports” in collegiate athletics, meaning the money they make underwrites unprofitable men’s and women’s sports such as field hockey, cross-country and golf. But the big-money sports finished in the black only at two Virginia schools, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia. Tech reported surpluses of nearly $5.3 million in basketball and $13.6 million from football that year, while Virginia showed surpluses of $621 in basketball and $5 million in football, the study said.
The results didn’t sit well with some legislators who comprise the commission.
Senate Republican Leader Thomas K. Norment, an adjunct law professor at The College of William & Mary, said he recently reviewed the charter for his university — founded by the British crown in 1693 and the alma mater of Thomas Jefferson — “and I saw a lot of emphasis about professors and academics and the curriculum. I didn’t see the word ‘football’ or ‘basketball’ mentioned once.”
The report acknowledged benefits from sports programs. Successful sports teams drive up enrollment, though aggregate test scores don’t necessarily improve. They stimulate enthusiasm — and donations — from alumni and fans.
Don Finley, president of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, said that a survey by his organization found that from fiscal year 2009 through the fiscal year that ended in June, 35,000 donors made contributions totaling $913 million to both athletic and academic programs at Virginia four-year colleges. Of that, 57 percent, or $518.5 million, went to academics, Finley said, while 43 percent, or about $395 million, went to athletics.
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