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It's not just your general feeling—at many schools, sports do, in fact, take way bigger priority over actual, you know, academics. And here's proof. A new study released Monday by the American Association of University Professors(AAUP) showed that private and public colleges with less-prominent athletic programs are increasing spending on athletic programs at higher proportions than spending on academics.

The study analyzed faculty salaries and NCAA spending from 2004 to 2012, finding that spending on athletics increased across the board for all schools. Of particular interest, however, is how “minor sports” and “less competitive schools” greatly increased the percentage they spend on athletics.

“The rate of increase of spending on athletic programs was actually higher in D-III programs, where there are no scholarships and the seasons of competition are limited,” said John Curtis, one of the writers of the study and director of research and public policy at the AAUP.

"I was astounded to see the increases in athletic spending were not just confounded to DI," said Saranna Thornton, another writer of the study, who is also a professor of economics at Hampden-Syndney College. (She also coached men's rugby there.)

"When you start to see that tennis coaches and cross country coaches are getting salary increases triple, quadruple what professors are making, it’s pretty clear that academics are not the priority of the institution," she said.


Some of the particular findings of the study included:

  • Public two-year schools, meaning community colleges, had a 35 percent increase in athletic spending, and a 8.5 percent decrease in spending on instruction.
  • Public four-year schools, or state universities and colleges, increased athletic spending by 24.8 percent, alongside a 0.9 percent increase in spending on instruction.
  • Private four-year schools (which largely compete in DI-AA, DII and DIII) saw a 28.9 percent increase in athletic spending, contrasted with a 5.1 percent increase in instruction.
  • Coaches in “minor sports” such as golf, tennis, and DI-AA football (which doesn't compete in as competitive bowl games as DI-A schools), had percentage-increases in salaries as high as 79 percent. In the same time period, full-time professors averaged a 4-percent increase in salary.


The fact that colleges spend a lot on their athletics staffs is pretty well known. A popular infographic last year showed that the highest-paid state employee in each state is usually a college football or basketball coach, usually for an NCAA DI team. For a state school’s football coach to make $5 million is hardly out of the ordinary. But this study is the first time that it’s been clear that less competitive schools have also invested in athletics at an equal or higher percentage than they have on professors.

One of the major arguments for spending in college athletics, the study said, is that “revenue-generating” sports such as football and men’s basketball bring in funds to finance themselves, bringing about a return on investment. However, the study said, “only 23 institutions reported that their athletic programs ran a surplus, with revenues greater than expenses.”


The association said in its report: “Athletics and academics don’t have to be incompatible, but the trends documented here provide strong evidence that current institutional decision making places too great an emphasis on athletics, to the detriment of academics and student success.”

“Higher education, getting a college degree has become a really basic aspiration for everyone these days,” Curtis said. “As a consequence we need to ensure that our colleges and universities are focusing resources on the academic program, on educating students, rather than spending it on athletics and administration.”

*Fusion requested comment from the NCAA and is awaiting response.