Athletic fees to cost students in state millions

Published: Monday, July 29, 2013

The biggest source of revenue for intercollegiate athletics programs at most of the state’s universities is not ticket sales or private donations. It’s mandatory fees charged to all students.

Those universities - every one in the state except for the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, which does not have student athletic fees - will charge students athletic fees between $13 and $17 per credit hour in the 2013-14 academic year, whether or not those students ever attend a game.

Campus leaders say athletics help bolster students’ sense of connection to their institutions, which can be a helpful tool to retain them through graduation. Intercollegiate athletics also boost alumni giving and help attract prospective students, they have said. And many athletics programs have higher graduation rates than the general campus population, they’ve said.

But relying on students to help fund nonacademic programs has long drawn criticism from some members of the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board, which reviews an athletics budget report annually but has no authority to change the way universities pay for their programs.

“I don’t mind receiving this report, but approve it, I do not,” board member Kaneaster Hodges of Newport said at a meeting Friday after another board member made a motion to “approve” the report, which is compiled by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.

Hodges, who has been on the board for 11 years, votes against the report every year after criticizing the athletics fees.

Continued use of athletics fees comes as state lawmakers encourage campus leaders to slow annual growth in tuition and fee expenses that can be a barrier for some potential students and lead to large amounts of student debt for others.

A relatively small number of the nation’s university athletics programs are considered financially self-sustaining, which means they don’t rely on student fees or other institutional funds to pay for sports programs.

Just 23 schools with NCAA Division I football teams - typically a large driver of revenue through ticket sales and television contracts - had self-sustaining athletics budgets in 2012, according to the most recent data available from the organization.

“Because sports revenues so often fall short of meeting the needs of athletics programs, almost all programs must rely on allocations from general university funds, fees imposed on the entire student body, and state appropriations to meet funding gaps,” the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics said in a 2010 report.

“This is a significant concern at a time when economic woes have devastated state budgets and institutional endowments alike. Conflicts over funding between academics and athletics are growing.”

The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, which has the only financially self-sustaining program in the state and does not charge student athletic fees, plans to spend $80,675,500 on athletics in 2013-14. Of that, $67,734,000 will come from athletic-generated revenue, according to the Higher Education Department report. The rest will come from “other athletic income,” such as funds raised by the Razorback Foundation, the report said.

The nine other state universities with intercollegiate athletics programs plan to spend a combined $55,933,269, the report said. Of that, $9,960,833, or 17.8 percent will be covered by revenue generated by their programs; $7,900,607, or 14.1 percent, will come from auxiliary campus profits, like student parking; and $24,634,933, or 44 percent of costs, will be covered by student athletic fees, the largest source of revenue for those programs.

The remaining costs will be covered by private donations and about $9,388,195 transferred from those universities’ educational and general funds. Educational and general funds, made up of student tuition and state appropriations, cover instruction and operating expenses campus-wide.

The University of Central Arkansas and Arkansas State University-Jonesboro will charge a $17-per-credit hour student athletic fee in 2013-2014, the highest in the state. That means a student who takes a typical course load of 15 credit hours per semester at those universities will be required to contribute $510 to their athletics programs through fees this academic year.

The lowest student athletic fee will be $13 at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

As the Higher Education Coordinating Board reviewed the athletics budget last week, board members asked if students could opt out of paying the fees.

Campus leaders said they could not.

Front Section, Pages 1 on 07/29/2013