Athletic fees are a large, and sometimes hidden, cost at colleges

Parents pay $12,323 for their children to attend the Virginia Military Institute. This includes includes an athletic fee of $1,362, which is lumped into a larger auxiliary fee.
Parents pay $12,323 for their children to attend the Virginia Military Institute. This includes includes an athletic fee of $1,362, which is lumped into a larger auxiliary fee. (Stephanie Gross For The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post staff writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010; 10:14 PM

Of the $9,855 in undergraduate tuition and fees charged to Virginia residents this academic year by Longwood University in Farmville, $2,022 - about one-fifth - covers a single fee for athletics.

Athletic fees are a large - and occasionally hidden - cost of public higher education in Virginia and Maryland. The athletic fee is the largest single item charged to undergraduate students at many Maryland and Virginia public universities, apart from tuition, according to figures from state education agencies. Fees at some Virginia schools rank among the highest in the nation.

And some families might not realize they are paying them.

The $2,022 fee charged by Longwood is not mentioned on the school's Web page devoted to tuition and fees. All that's listed is a single figure for tuition, fees and living expenses. Radford University doesn't list its $1,077 athletic fee on its tuition and fees page. Christopher Newport University's $1,147 athletic fee is included within a single "tuition" figure on its Web site. Four-figure athletic fees at James Madison and Old Dominion universities and Virginia Military Institute are not listed on their tuition and fees pages.

University leaders say that without the fee, they wouldn't be able to offer high-quality intercollegiate athletic programs. Schools with fewer students and deep-pocket donors have to charge correspondingly larger fees.

"I have 4,800 students. If I raise [the fee] by one dollar, I get $4,800," said Kathy Worster, vice president for administration and finance at Longwood.

School officials say they don't list individual fees on their Web sites out of concern for burying parents in minutiae. The schools generally report prices as a comprehensive fee - a single figure that represents everything a student should expect to pay.

"What we're saying is, this is our total cost for our total experience," Worster said.

Critics say parents might be surprised at how much of that cost goes toward athletics.

Nine public universities in Virginia charged athletic fees greater than $1,000 this year, to support athletic programs that could not support themselves. Three other Virginia schools and seven Maryland institutions charged students more than $500 apiece to shore up their athletics.

An analysis of undergraduate athletic fees at 14 Virginia universities finds that the average fee nearly doubled in 10 years, from $530 to $986.

"Folks assume all fees are nickel-and-dime stuff, that tuition is the main big-ticket item in going to college," said Terry Meyers, an English professor at the College of William and Mary who has emerged as a public critic of fees. "But athletic fees these days can sometimes be stunningly large. And they've grown that way partly because many institutions work hard to keep the fees hidden or obscured."

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