Each Citadel cadet will shell out a student athletic fee of $2,392 this year, money that helps fund intercollegiate athletics at the military school. That’s almost a quarter of a cadet’s total in-state tuition and fees, and enough money to purchase 26 season tickets for football under the school’s young alumni plan.
At College of Charleston, each undergraduate and graduate student will have to come up with $1,210 this year to fund Cougar athletics. That’s 11.5 percent of in-state tuition and fees and enough to buy 12 season tickets for basketball under the Cougars’ young alumni plan.
Students at The Citadel, College of Charleston and the state’s six other public, mid-major universities pay the freight for athletics on their campuses, subsidizing an average of 78 percent of the athletic budgets at those schools in 2013, according to data collected by USA Today.
Fees from College of Charleston’s 11,000 undergrads and graduate students funded 72 percent of College of Charleston’s athletic department budget from 2009-2013, according to USA Today. That’s well above the average of 42 percent in 2010 for Division I schools without football, according to a study done by the American Institutes for Research.
At The Citadel, which has a student body of only about 2,300 cadets, student fees accounted for almost 39 percent of the athletic budget over that time. That is above the Football Championship Subdivision average of 29 percent, and does not include other subsidies that help pay for Citadel athletics.
It’s a mid-major model that is increasingly viewed as broken. Athletics fees contribute mightily to the $1.3 trillion in college debt that students face. USC Upstate business professor Jeff Smith, who has studied and written about the issue, estimates that students across the country borrow almost $4 billion per year to pay for college athletics on their campuses.
Additionally, student athletics fees are often difficult to uncover and don’t often appear on school’s websites or student’s bills.
College of Charleston athletic director Joe Hull said depending heavily on student fees is part of life at a mid-major school.
“Unquestionably, we get a significant amount from the university,” Hull said, “whether it’s student fees or contributions from the campus. And no question, it’s a sign of the times at schools like College of Charleston or Coastal Carolina, or fill in the blank.
“It’s part of the budget, part of life at this level.”
Indeed, athletic department subsidies, including student fees, amount to $3.7 billion annually and account for 65 percent of athletic department budgets for the 286 Division I schools outside the so-called “Power Five” conferences, which include the ACC and SEC, according to Smith’s studies.
Enriched by the lucrative TV contracts of the SEC and ACC, Power 5 schools such as South Carolina and Clemson do not have to rely heavily on student athletics fees or other subsidies. Only 2.7 percent of USC’s total revenue from 2009-13 came from student fees; at Clemson, the number was not even 2 percent. But even at Clemson, with an athletic budget already at about $69 million, school officials have considered adding an athletics fee of $350 per year to student bills.
And the price of supporting athletics for students is only going up. Since 2005, the amount of annual athletic fees collected at The Citadel has risen 104 percent; at College of Charleston, that number has gone up by 110 percent. At the same time, state funding for public colleges in South Carolina has decreased dramatically; since 2008, per-student spending by the state is down more than 40 percent.
Recent decisions by the NCAA, including permitting schools to supply unlimited meals and snacks to student-athletes, and allowing scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance, only increase the pressure to raise athletic budgets. Virginia Tech of the ACC estimates that adding the full cost of attendance will increase its scholarship budget by some $950,000 per year; mid-major schools such as The Citadel and College of Charleston will feel pressure to follow suit.
Such increases have prompted the state of Virginia to consider a law that would cap student athletics fees, which run as high as $1,702 per year at Virginia Military Institute and account for 69 percent of athletic budgets at the state’s 11 Division I public schools. That’s an idea the state of South Carolina should consider, Smith said.
“According to studies I’ve done, Virginia was probably about the worst in the country when it comes to athletic fees,” Smith said. “And South Carolina is probably the second-worst. And that’s because we have six comprehensive universities in our state who are playing Division I athletics but are heavily subsidized.”
Citadel athletic director Jim Senter said rising athletic fees are a part of the ever-increasing cost of a college education.
“I think it’s a question of how much more students and their families can afford for a college education,” Senter said. “I have two college-age sons myself, and they are doing their part to pay their way through school, and I’m doing my part as best I can. I think most parents are at the upper edge of being able to help their kids afford college, and I’m talking about the totality of the cost.”
Student athletics fees can be hard to pin down for parents and students trying to figure out their bottom-line costs. They are not always listed on a school’s list of fees on its website or on the bills sent to students.
“If you look at websites and the bills from most schools, you’ll see every fee in the world,” Smith said. “Parking fees, technology fees. But nobody wants to put the athletic fee on there, so it’s much harder to find.”
Some of the state’s public schools report their athletics fees to the state Commission on Higher Education; to their credit, The Citadel and College of Charleston are up front about their fees. But even those CHE numbers don’t always reflect the true extent to which students are paying for college athletics. Each school accounts for campus support for athletics differently, a CHE spokesperson said.
Coastal Carolina in Conway, for example, reports a student athletics fee of $350 per year for in-state students ($750 out-of-state) to the CHE. But subsidies made up fully 82 percent (or about $18.3 million) of the Big South Conference school’s total athletic budget of about $22.3 million in 2013, according to USA Today’s figures. Most of that money comes out of tuition, and that means the true cost to some 8,000 Coastal Carolina students for athletics is closer to $2,200 per student, according to Smith.
“Coastal Carolina is the most extreme,” Smith said. “Their athletic subsidy amounts to real close to 25 percent of tuition.”
USC Upstate, an Atlantic Sun Conference school of about 4,000 students in Spartanburg, reports a student athletics fee of $0 to the Commission on Higher Education. Instead, according to school officials, $950 of each student’s tuition is dedicated to athletics. That amounted to 64 percent of USC Upstate’s athletic budget from 2009-13.
At The Citadel, the school kicked in about $3.8 million in 2013 on top of student athletics fees of about $5.5 million, combining for a total subsidy of close to $9.3 million (or 69 percent) out of an athletic budget of almost $13.4 million. Most of that $3.8 million came in the form of tuition waivers, the school said.
Accounting for student fees varies widely in South Carolina. Subsidies provided 85.2 percent of Winthrop’s $12.4 million budget in 2013, and 67.2 percent of South Carolina State’s $10.1 million budget. And yet S.C. State reported a student athletics fee of $2,129 for this year to the Commission on Higher Education, while Winthrop’s reported athletics fee is $0. Winthrop’s campus support for athletics comes out of the student activity fee of $1,450 paid by each student, the school said.
Charleston Southern, a private school, does not have to disclose its funding sources for athletics. A portion of each student’s tuition does go to athletics, said Rick Brewer, vice president for student affairs and athletics.
Athletics fees are justified, school officials say, because students get in free to athletic events, and because athletics are an important part of the college experience, just like other extracurricular activities such as music and theater productions paid for with student fees.
“I think it’s really important that students support student-athletes at the college,” said Ryan Spraker, a junior from Myrtle Beach who is president of College of Charleston’s Student Government Association. “We don’t all play sports, but we all benefit from having athletics on campus, having that school spirit and having our athletes spread the College of Charleston name when they compete across the country.”
At The Citadel, Senter said, athletic teams provide much of the racial and gender diversity on campus.
“Every institution has to evaluate the unique value that intercollegiate athletics brings to its college,” Senter said. “Athletics brings a great mix of diversity to our campus, and if you didn’t have athletics that’s something you might lose.”
The Virginia proposal, for example, would require the state’s FCS and non-football schools to fund at least half their athletic budgets from sources other than student fees. That means schools would have to increase funding from sources such as ticket sales, broadcast revenue and fundraising, or cut costs, as College of Charleston recently did with its decision to drop its swimming and diving teams.
Such a law in South Carolina would have drastic effects, College of Charleston’s Hull said.
“We’d have to reassess the competitive level of our program and what our budget would be,” Hull said. “Something like that would have a serious impact.”
USC Upstate’s Smith said there is a reasonable number that schools can expect students to contribute toward athletics.
“I love college sports,” Smith said. “College sports is great, it’s just out of perspective. I don’t think the fee for athletics at most schools should be more than $200 or $300 per year. Students do get tickets and all that, so a reasonable amount is OK for any school.”
“That’s what I think legislatures should be working on,” Smith said. “What is a reasonable number? I think the stakeholders — universities, presidents, faculty, community, students — need to start having a discussion on this and figure that number out.”