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

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."

Virginia law requires public universities to publish "the amount and distribution" of fees on their Web sites and to "facilitate access and availability" of those reports to parents and students.

"In other words, if I'm a parent paying tuition and fees and want to know exactly what I'm paying for, I should be able to find it fairly easily," said Kirsten Nelson, spokeswoman for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Most Maryland colleges list athletic fees plainly on their Web sites. Virginia schools generally do not.

Virginia Tech posts its athletic fee. That fee is only $257, because Tech sports make big money. Football ticket sales alone generated $14 million in the 2008-09 academic year.

William and Mary has "struggled toward honesty," Meyers wrote in a 2006 industry article, and now lists all its fees online.

The University of Virginia lists its $657 athletic fee, but on a relatively obscure Web page.

"We're working with the budget office to make such financial information easier and more intuitive to find," said Marian Anderfuren, a university spokeswoman.

Other universities lump the fee into a larger sum, such as the $3,680 "auxiliary fee" at VMI. Officials at the University of Mary Washington said it does not charge a separate athletic fee, although state records suggest it does. The fees are tabulated in an annual state report.

A national analysis of athletic fees published last month by USA Today found no university outside Virginia charging an athletic fee higher than $1,000.

Two of the 20 highest fees identified in the report were in Maryland, at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Towson University. UMBC charged an athletic fee of $802 this academic year, according to state data; Towson charged $767.

UMBC discloses its fee on its Web site. Towson added the fee to its site after publication of the USA Today investigation, according to the article.

School officials cautioned against comparing fees among schools, even within the same state, because different schools may use the fees for somewhat different purposes. Generally speaking, the fees cover only the costs of intercollegiate sports.

Virginia's fees are particularly high because it is one of a few states that forbid public universities to use tuition to subsidize athletics, university officials said.

"In Virginia, every athletic program has to stand on its own bottom," said Larry Hincker, Virginia Tech spokesman.

Each athletic program relies on millions of dollars in fees or donations to keep it afloat.

Ninety-five percent of the revenue in the Christopher Newport athletic program in fiscal 2009 came from student fees, according to institutional data; 83 percent at James Madison; 70 percent at George Mason University.

Elite Virginia schools support athletics with donations. U-Va. collected $22 million in contributions in the 2009 academic year, its largest single source of athletic revenue, according to a state audit . William and Mary earned $5 million in contributions and income from endowments and investments that year.

"We have worked hard to reduce the percentage of our athletics budget that is dependent on the student fee," said Brian Whitson, university spokesman.

That's a tall order for a university with a student body of 7,800 and negligible revenue from advertising and sponsorships. William and Mary has limited its reliance on university fees to about half of the total athletic revenue, largely through donations and investments.

At Norfolk State University, by contrast, contributions generated only $289,013 in 2008-09. Of nearly $10 million in athletic revenue, $8.3 million came from student fees.

Larger universities can minimize fees by spreading them out. At George Mason University, a $475 fee collected from 19,000 undergraduate students should yield at least $9 million this academic year.

Fees from graduate students will generate additional revenue.

Virginia Tech collects less money from fees than most other Virginia institutions, largely because of its nationally ranked football program, an endeavor that "basically underwrites all the other programs on our campus," Hincker said. "Our programs are expensive, and our tuition is going to be high. So we have always rigorously held down our athletic fees."

Virginia's athletic fees have stirred little public outcry. Take William and Mary, a school with one of the state's highest athletic fees and an informed student body.

"From time to time you'll see an op-ed in one of the campus papers talking about this," said Matt Poms, a senior who is managing editor of the Flat Hat newspaper at the university. "I've never, in four years here, seen any organized opposition."

The reason might be that parents and students don't know they are being charged.

James Boyle, president of the Virginia advocacy group College Parents of America, said parents might complain about the fee if more were aware of it, particularly those with children who take no part in campus sports.

"I think there's kind of a mistaken assumption that all students are interested in athletics," he said. "And some students aren't."

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