Big 10 Expansion Has Unseemly Side

This article appeared in USA Today on November 25, 2012.
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No more Texas vs. Texas A&M. No more Kansas‐​Missouri “Border War.” No more Maryland vs. Duke. No more Georgetown‐​Syracuse. Those great rivalries are either already dead, or headed to the guillotine. They’re just the latest signs of public universities’ unspeakable greed.

If you pay any attention to college athletics you are well aware of conference realignment that for years has rocked big‐​time college football and, as a result, all the other NCAA Division I sports. We just entered another wave with the University of Maryland and Rutgers announcing their departures from the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big East, respectively, for the once‐​midwestern Big Ten.

This will take the Big Ten from 12 schools to 14.

Unfortunately, this probably won’t end anytime soon. The University of Connecticut is likely to be offered, and accept, an ACC invitation to fill Maryland’s void. The University of Louisville could get a call from the Big 12 — which currently has but 10 members. That would be two more losses for the Big East. And the ACC shouldn’t get too comfortable, with football flagship Florida State clearly dissatisfied, and other members likely making contingency plans to escape a suddenly listing ship.

Most of these schools, of course, are public universities. While private Notre Dame and Syracuse University have switched conferences, big state schools unquestionably are driving the realignment money‐​grab. And yes, it is a money‐​grab, with schools and conferences moving primarily to capture more television‐​generated riches.

While disconcerting, this might be fine if these programs got to where they are purely on football merit. After all, when a company becomes king of its industry it’s usually because it has provided the most in‐​demand product at the lowest cost. But state‐​school football programs are not companies winning or losing in a free market. No, public institutions dominate big‐​time football because, relative to private schools, they are cheap and have huge student bodies — not as a result of excellence, but massive state and local subsidies.

According to the latest federal figures, in 2009-10 public colleges and universities received $92.3 billion from state and local governments, primarily to make college more affordable. The sports side effect is big fan bases filling big stadiums and providing big TV ratings.

Their artificially inflated size isn’t public colleges’ only football advantage. Sometimes state politicians just give them gridiron money. In 2008 Rutgers was found to have received about $2.25 million in secret state grants for football. The University of Minnesota got $138 million from the state to construct a new stadium. And the University of Connecticut’s Rentschler Field was constructed entirely with state money, a $91.2 million expense.

Public colleges’ greed, though, isn’t restricted to sports. Despite heavy subsidies, public colleges have raised their prices at breakneck speeds for decades. Since 1982–83, inflation‐​adjusted tuition, fee, room and board charges at four‐​year public colleges ballooned from $7,510 to $17,860, a 138% increase.

College leaders will tell you they’ve had to raise prices as state taxpayers have cut their funding. That’s at best an incomplete picture. Adjusted for inflation, in the aggregate state and local taxpayers increased their compelled generosity by about 29% from 1986 to 2011. Funding has dipped on a per‐​pupil basis, but largely because we have seen huge enrollment increases. And for roughly every dollar cut, schools have raised prices about two dollars.

State universities may cry poverty, but rampant price inflation says greed. And part of those rising prices are fees to support such things as — you guessed it —college athletics, including football.

What’s the lesson? Not that people in public universities are greedier than anyone else. If we could get it, most of us would certainly take more money. No, the lesson is simple but largely denied: Public colleges are not, as they portray themselves, selfless servants of the common good. What’s happening in college football puts that in stark relief.