University of Connecticut students pay over $2,000 each year solely for the privilege of having intercollegiate sports on campus. Unfortunately, these students do not realize any educational benefits for this high-cost penalty. Students, trustees, and UConn’s president need to consider the cost-benefit issue, particularly in the context of graduates’ long-term debt.
Those giving intercollegiate sports serious thought will likely conclude these activities do not contribute in any way to a college education. That’s the message in an insightful article titled “Institutionalized Hypocrisy: The Myth of Intercollegiate Athletics,” written by Dr. Ronald Flowers, a historian at Eastern Michigan University. A similar conclusion results from reading a 2020 book titled “Intercollegiate Athletics, Inc.: How Big-Time College Sports Cheat Students, Taxpayers, and Academics.”
Rather than enhance the primary purpose of a university, intercollegiate sports detract from the educational mission. These sports programs divert valuable resources from academic priorities and are a distraction for serious-minded students. Besides adding more teaching faculty, universities must seek ways to better invest resources in potentially enriching educational experiences, such as travel abroad, funding undergraduate research, and industry-vetted programs.
While intercollegiate sports compromise many students’ education, student-athletes who participate in the games suffer even more. How can that be when many are the beneficiaries of a paid college education?
The athletes lose out because, in most instances, they are in degree programs that will not provide them with skills that employers value in the workplace. Additionally, the time and energy needed for practicing and training take away from academic studies. After working out several hours a day, athletes return to their rooms too exhausted to focus on their homework and classroom preparation. Many may not even have the energy to go to their classes.
An additional downside for the athletes is their inability to participate in high-impact educational experiences such as learning communities, travel abroad, undergraduate scholarship, internships, and capstone programs. Since these enrichment programs have a cultural or career focus, Black athletes and students from low-income families would likely benefit more than other students.
Like most institutions, the University of Connecticut has not been transparent regarding the cost of intercollegiate sports. However, the information is available for all Division I institutions at the Knight Commission website: www.knightcommission.org. In 2018, the total cost for intercollegiate sports at UConn was $79.3 million, of which almost half ($39 million or 49%) comes from student fees and tuition. Since undergraduate enrollment in 2018 was 19,133 students, the cost for the privilege of having intercollegiate sports on campus was $2,038/year. If students complete their degree in four years (most take longer), intercollegiate sports cost is over $8,000.
If intercollegiate sports are not related to a university’s primary purpose, why are administrators making brutal faculty cuts that seriously jeopardize the educational quality and the value of all degrees? There are other options they should be exploring.
Competitive sports programs serve an important role on college campuses for student-athletes by developing self-confidence, building leadership skills, and promoting good health. However, these results are accomplished better through robust intramural programs for all students or club sports for student-athletes. The cost of intramural programs and club sports is not insignificant. However, they are a fraction of the cost of NCAA-level intercollegiate programs that involve extensive travel, require expensive recruiting efforts, and mandate competitive salaries for coaches that are well over $1 million annually. Many, like at UConn, are the highest paid in their state.
With strong leadership from the top, the University of Connecticut could eliminate intercollegiate sports and replace them with comprehensive intramural programs for all students and add club sports programs that provide student-athletes opportunities to compete with neighboring East Coast universities. This move would save UConn over $75 million/year.
Using redirected funds, UConn could restore and even add many faculty positions, create new career-focused degree programs, maintain commitments for existing athletic scholarships, and allow more academic scholarships for students from low-income families. The university can “REBRAND” itself as a forward-looking institution committed to students’ success and quality education.
Laurence I. Peterson is Dean Emeritus, College of Science & Mathematics, Kennesaw State University, and former Vice President of Research with BASF Corporation and Celanese Corporation. He received his Ph.D. in chemistry from Yale University. He recently authored two articles on higher education titled “Is College Football an Expensive Luxury for Many Universities” and “To Close the Skills Gap, Create Industry-Vetted Certificate Programs for Students.” This article represents his views and not those of the university.