But in the two decades since places such as Hampton and Norfolk State joined Division I, none of them have become the household names they had hoped to be by now.
Instead, those universities and others who followed their strategy have been relegated to the backwater of college sports, with games on weekday nights on obscure cable channels. The only way many of these universities make it to the big time is to have their name appear on the stream of scores on ESPN’s ticker or as blowout fodder for elite programs.
Yet other universities continue to follow in their footsteps. They all have child-like dreams that they’ll be the one to break through the mediocrity of mid-tier Division I. And their false ambitions are largely bankrolled by one group with little say in the matter and even fewer resources: students.
In an investigation published this week, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Huffington Post found that in just the past five years, public universities funneled $10.3 billion in mandatory student fees and other subsidies to their athletic programs. During that time, the average athletic subsidy increased 16 percent, and student fees, which accounted for nearly half of all subsidies, increased by 10 percent.
The report found that the subsidies tended to be highest at colleges where ticket sales and other revenue were the lowest. In other words, students were forced to pay mandatory fees to support athletics even though many didn’t care enough about any of the teams to even show up for a game.
When I first wrote about this phenomenon, I focused on the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. At the time, its student fees paid for 80 percent of the subsidy provided to the athletic department. Officials told me they expected the share of student support to fall over time as their teams established winning records and garnered more outside support.
So what has happened at Greensboro since the late 1990s?
According to The Chronicle/Huff Post analysis, Greensboro students today provide 81 percent of the subsidy. In other words, nothing has changed except that the department’s budget has quadrupled since the late 1990s and the student fee for athletics has almost doubled, to about $700 a year per student.
And Greensboro is not among the worst offenders. One of the largest subsidies in the country is at Georgia State University, where during the past five years students have paid nearly $90 million in mandatory athletic fees.
Georgia State is an institution that I highlighted recently as a leader in dedicating limited financial aid dollars to students who truly need the money to finish their degree. But nearly half of the students at Georgia State still have unmet financial need, with some of them $15,000 short of their tuition bill each year. This is not an institution that should be asking students to pay even more for a football team that has a 3-29 record since joining Division I in 2013.
Georgia State is not alone in requiring students who have few discretionary dollars to pay for something that has zero impact on their classroom experience. According to the Chronicle/Huff Post analysis, the 50 institutions with the highest athletic subsidies have many more financially needy students than those universities with the lowest subsidies.
What’s more, nearly all the growth in Division I athletics during the past decade has come at public universities. At the same time these university leaders were obsessed with conference realignments and big television deals, taxpayer support for public universities has fallen to unprecedented levels. In half the states, students today pay for a larger share of their education than the states do. Just a decade ago, students paid about one-third of their public school tuition bill.
Even when faced with the worst state budgets in recent history, public university officials still chose to make some of their largest investments ever in their athletic programs. If the absence of state funds didn’t diminish the athletic ambitions of public universities, the only way to stop the flow of institutional subsidies to unsustainable athletic programs is for students to stop paying for someone else’s dreams.