No gold beyond the goal line

It’s the kind of cynical shell game that undermines trust and suggests other subterfuge. As widely reported, the NCAA just released its latest Graduation Rate Success (GSR) scores. These scores show that the University of Arkansas’ football and basketball programs produced the lowest marks in the Southeastern Conference.

As reported, the Razorbacks’ football team had a graduation rate of 54 percent, while the basketball team had a graduation rate of 10 percent. The scores were comprised of student-athletes who entered school in a four-year period between 2003-06.

Only two other Division I men’s basketball programs — Connecticut and Centenary College — recorded a lower GSR than the Razorbacks.

Of course the university was quick to point out that “74 percent” of UA student athletes went on to receive college degrees. That may be so, but no programs in the U of A system consume resources or get more special dispensation than the men’s football and basketball teams. Moreover, the GSR for those programs only drags down the average.

This kind of disingenuous rhetoric is used to shield the fact that elite athletics is not a money-maker for most universities. Facts being what they are, most big time athletic programs are little more than grist mills with low graduation rates. But they’re very popular, so we should not care that they don’t actually contribute to the primary purpose of higher education — educating.

To be clear, the main goal of college is not to fill stadiums. It’s not to get television air time. It’s not to win bowl games or championships. It’s not to sell T-shirts or promote tailgate parties. It’s to teach things like social studies, literature, math, science, medicine, engineering and art.

An extremely pervasive but wholesale fiction is that big athletic programs bring in big paydays for their schools. Multiple independent studies prove this is generally untrue.

According to the American Institutes for Research, Delta Cost Project report, “Academic Spending Versus Athletic Spending: Who Wins?” obscene coaches’ salaries and gilded programs don’t pay for themselves, “… participation in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I athletic programs … comes with a hefty price tag, one that is usually paid in part by institutions and students.”

The report continues, “Fewer than one in four of the 97 public FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) athletic departments generated more money than they spent in any given year between 2005 and 2010.”

The difference between academic and athletic spending among Division I schools is equally grotesque. Each of the 97 D-I schools spent an average of $12,700 on academics per full-time student. Those same schools spent an average of $92,000 per athlete — six times as much.

Here in the well-financed Southeastern Conference, median spending per athlete is nearly four times more than that of the Sun Belt Conference. Not only does athletic spending per athlete far exceed academic spending per student, it’s also growing twice as fast, according to the study.

All of this reminds us of an old story about good business: Once upon a time there were two guys who decided to go into the watermelon business. They found a farmer who’d sell them melons at a dollar a piece. Being none too bright, the partners built a roadside stand and sold the melons for a dollar each. They sold truckload after truckload. After counting their daily take one says to his buddy, “We don’t seem to be making much money.” The other scratches his head and says, “Yeah, maybe we need a bigger truck.”

The difference here is that we don’t need a bigger truck (or stadium). We needs schools that focus on being schools, not golden playgrounds for the over-indulged. If you’re looking for a reason America lags behind in dozens of academic indicators, this is a good place to start. As we’ve said before, UA is a school with an athletic program, not the other way around.